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close this bookColonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)
View the documentNote to the Reader from the UNU
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentForeword
Open this folder and view contentsIntroduction: Lowland Settlement and Environmental Impacts in Central America
Open this folder and view contents1. The Process of Colonization in Central America
Open this folder and view contents2. Colonization in Costa Rica
Open this folder and view contents3. Colonization in Panama
Open this folder and view contents4. Colonization in Nicaragua
Open this folder and view contents5. Colonization in Honduras
Open this folder and view contents6. Colonization in Guatemala
Open this folder and view contents7. Conclusions
View the documentBibliography

Note to the Reader from the UNU

This book is the result of a study carried out under the United Nations University Project on Resource Use of Frontiers and Pioneer Settlements. A major aim of the project was to determine the ecological impact of pioneer settlement; specifically, which settlement patterns minimize the destructive effects on the environment. The project included an appraisal of the economic, political, and cultural factors bearing on frontier settlement, and an examination of the different interdependent variables involved from biophysical parameters to government action and policies- to discover which combination of these factors are likely to result in successful settlements.

The project (1983-1987) included in its activities several international symposia and indepth case-studies of pioneer settlement areas in the humid tropics of Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

Colonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America presents the findings of a study undertaken in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama of patterns of tropical land colonization and government policies and management practices regarding land settlement.


ACD1 (Canada): Spanish acronym for the Canadian International Development Agency.

ADI (Costa Rica): Agrarian Development Institute (Instituto pare el Desarrollo Agrario), land reform and settlement agency. Formerly ITCO.


BID: Banco Interamericano pare el Desarrollo (Interamerican Development Bank).

BIRF: Banco Internacional de Reconstrucción y Fomento.

CATIE: Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigatión y Enseñanza (Tropical Agriculture Research and Training Center), located in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

CNMA (Panama): Comisión Nacional de Medio Ambiente (National Commission for the Natural Environment).

COATLAHL: Cooperativa Agroforestal Atlántida Honduras Limitada (Atlantida Honduras Agroforestry Cooperative, Ltd.).

COHDEFOR (Honduras): Corporación Hondureòo de Desarrollo Forestal (Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development).

COPFA: Comision Panameòa-Americana pare la Prevención de la Fiebre Aftosa (Panamanian-American Commission for the Prevention of Hoof-and-Mouth Disease).

CORFOP (Nicaragua): Corporación Forestal del Pueblo (People's Forestry Corporation).

CRN (Guatemala): Comité de Reconstrucción Nacional (National Reconstruction

Committee), government group formed to administer rebuilding efforts after earthquake.

CSUCA: Programa Centroamericano de Ciencias Sociales.

DICA (Guatemala): Dirección de Colonización Agricola-Instituto de Transformación Agraria.

DIGESA (Guatemala): Dirección General de Servicios Agrícolas (General Directorate for Agricultural Services).

DIGESEPE (Guatemala): Dirección General de Servicios Pecuarios (General Directorate for Animal Production Services).

DRI-I (Guatemala): Desarrollo Rural Integrado (Integrated Rural Development Project, in Izabál region).

DRNR (Costa Rica): Departamento de Recursos Naturales Renovables, CATIE

FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FTN (Guatemala): Franja Transversal del Norte settlement area.

FYDEP: Comisión pare el Fomento y Desarrollo Económico del Petén (Commission for the Growth and Economic Development of Petén).

TAN (Nicaragua): Instituto Agrario de Nicaragua (Agrarian Institute of Nicaragua).

TCTA (Guatemala): Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agropecuaria (Institute for Agricultural Science and Technology).

IDIAP: Instituto de Investigación Agropecuario de Panama (Panamanian Agricultural and Animal Research Institute).

IICA: Instituto Interamericano pare la Cooperación Agricultura (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture).

INA (Honduras): Instituto Nacional Agrario (National Agrarian Institute).

INAFOR (Guatemala): Instituto Nacional Forestal (National Forestry Institute).

INETER (Nicaragua): Instituto Nacional de Estudios Territoriales (National Institute for Territorial Studies).

INTA (Guatemala): Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria (National Institute for Agrarian Transformation).

IRENA (Nicaragua): Instituto Nicaragüense de Recursos Naturales y del Ambiente (Natural Resource Institute).

ITCO (Costa Rica): Instituto de Tierras y Colonización. See ADI.

IUCN: International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

MAG (Nicaragua): Ministry of Agriculture.

MIDA (Panama): Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario (Ministry of Agricultural Development).

MIDINRA (Nicaragua): Ministerio de Desarrollo Agrario e Instituto de Reforma Agraria (Ministry for Agrarian Development and Reform).

MNR (Honduras): Ministry of Natural Resources.

MZ: manzana.

NCIA (Costa Rica): National Commission for Indian Affairs (Comisión Nacional pare Asuntos Indígenas, CONAI).

NFD (Costa Rica): National Forestry Directorate (Dirección General Forestal), part of the Ministry of Agriculture.

NPF (Costa Rica): National Park Foundation (Fundación de Parques Nacionales), private non-profit conservation group.

NPS (Costa Rica): National Park Service (Servicio de Parques Nacionales), part of the Ministry of Agriculture.

OEA: Organización de los Estados Americanos (Organization for American States).

PNUD: Programa Naciones Unidas Desarollo.

PRICA (Nicaragua): Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas de Colonización Agricola (Rigoberto Cabezas Agricultural Colonization Project).

RENARE (Panama): Dirección Nacional de Recursos Naturales Renovables).

ROCAP: Regional Office for Central America and Panama, USAID.

SANAA (Honduras): Servicio Nacional de Aguas y Alcantarillas (National Services for Waters and Sewers).

SSF (Honduras): Sistema Social Forestal (Social Forestry System).

UNAN: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (National Autonomous University of Nicaragua).

UPD (Panama): Universidad Popular del Darién (Public University of Darién).

(US)ATD: (United States) Agency for International Development.

USPADA (Guatemala): Unidad Sectorial de Planificación Agropecuaria y de Alimentación (Sectoral Planning Unit for Food and Agriculture).


The phrase "colonization in Central America" generates a multitude of images, ranging from pioneering derring-do and righteousness to environmentalist anxiety and dismay, depending on who perceives it and in what context.

Colonization has historical, political, economic, social, and ecological aspects. For the early Spanish colonizers, the land was "there to be occupied," a feeling that is still prevalent among many people and particularly decision makers, regardless of the agricultural marginality of the land involved. The rapid rate of occupation over the last 100 years has not yet created an awareness that land to be colonized is finite: many people continue to believe that "beyond the next mountain there is still lots of empty land."

Politically, colonization is an extremely useful expedient. The land is either unowned or in the government's hands: giving it away to landless and poor farmers enhances the political aura of the government, as witnessed by the classic ceremony where a prominent government official, often the president himself or a military leader, hands over the newly acquired property titles to poor farmers - with cameras clicking and zooming in on the happy faces. To the large landowners who possess the best land, it is an effective way to distract land hungry peasants from their land and relieve - at least for the time being - what has become a most annoying pressure on their "sacred private property."

Opening new land is an apparently promising economic venture that lends itself to many financial schemes, including loans by development banks or "soft" money from friendly countries or agencies. It also opens possibilities for building roads, houses for the new settlers, and of course a whole array of land speculation opportunities.

The image of a land hungry peasant family moving into a new colonization area, with initial loans, a new house, education and health services, is without question a very socially satisfying scheme. Moreover, spontaneous colonization - as opposed to government directed colonization schemes- is a very old tradition and a socially accepted practice which has been documented over centuries.

The ecological implication is perhaps the least studied or understood. The capability of land to be managed on a sustainable basis to support a family is a question seldom considered. People are commonly heard to say "no hay sierra male; lo que no hay es gente pare trabajarla" (there is no bad land; all that is missing are people to work it).

Yet in most countries of Central America, almost all the land with adequate rainfall, moderate slopes - not to mention level land - and reasonable soils is already taken. What is left is land that is too steep, soils that are too poor in texture or in nutrients and too moist because of excessive rain and/or inadequate drainage.

It is not by chance that most directed or spontaneous colonization efforts nowadays are found in the humid areas of Central America, where conditions are usually marginal for sustainable agriculture. More than 50 per cent of Costa Rica's present pasture lands have recently been qualified by the national planning board as "mistakes in the conversion of forest to pasture" which should revert to forest. However, this sort of realization has not stopped the countries from continuing the opening of new land, usually primary forests, at an alarming rate.

This is not to say that there is no role for colonization, but that the present attitude to it must change. Some areas with slopes or high rainfall may be farmed, but not with traditional techniques imported from other ecological areas, characterized by more level land, better soils, or drier or cooler conditions or a combination of any of these factors. Colonization must become a carefully thought out process, and appropriate farming systems must be devised, understood, applied, evaluated, and continuously improved.

Agro-forestry, in which the United Nations University is deeply involved, may be a proper tool in some cases. In others, imaginative land use techniques must be devised. Traditional technical knowledge can be a most interesting guide to "new" or improved techniques.

It is time for decision makers and planners, who have the fundamental power over land use, to make a careful assessment of present colonization schemes and, it is hoped, learn from past mistakes as well as from success stories. The present contribution by Dr. Jeffrey R. Jones, an assistant professor in the Program in International Development and Social Change at Clark University, is an attempt in this direction, and, in addition, fits well with the UNU'S fundamental objective to establish guide-lines for sustainable land use under satisfactory ecological and socioeconomic conditions.



Dangers of Misdirected Policies in Land Settlement
Role of the Current Study
The Colonization Areas

Global concern with social and environmental conditions in Central America in the 1980s have raised the profile of the region for much of the world. These higher levels of concern are a mixed blessing, since they invite both support and intervention from outside the region. Official development assistance to Latin America has increased by 76 per cent in real dollars between 1981 and 1987, and by 115 per cent for Central American countries, excluding El Salvador (World Bank 1989); much of that assistance is directed toward resource-related and potentially contradictory problems, specifically deforestation and agricultural development (see esp. Leonard 1985). The relationship between resource use for immediate needs and resource management for long-term benefits is nowhere clearer than in the land settlement process. Experiences from land settlement programmes in Central America provide insights into attempts to resolve resource use conflicts and demonstrate successes and pitfalls of different approaches.

Tropical lowland colonization has been a product of both national and international efforts at agricultural development. The settlement of these lands has been a longstanding objective of Central American governments, and more recently, an unintended outcome of social reform efforts such as the Alliance of Progress, which poured money into "land reform" efforts directly through us government sources and indirectly through the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (Montgomery 1984). Simultaneous pressures for land reform and export-led development resulted in a pattern of financing forest destruction for new land uses, such as cattle ranching (Parsons 1976). The growing evidence of impending environmental damage caused by these programmes has begun in recent years to spur a response on the part of donor governments (see esp. u.s. Congress 1985) and international organizations.

International concern with deforestation has crystalized in a variety of forms, either as direct financing, political pressure through private sector groups, or "leveraged" environmental protection through debt swaps and other instruments (Page 1989). Financing has been applied to fund conservation agencies or individuals, and even to the purchase of lands for conservation purposes (Holder 1986; Barnard 1989). In other cases, attempts have been made to influence international markets to change patterns of incentives for forest clearance, as in boycotts of fast-food using Central American beef.

The objective of this study is to review Central American land settlement projects in the context of the two somewhat opposed objectives of development and conservation. Such a review cannot pretend to be exhaustive, but more illustrative of conditions and problems. The description of the land settlement process and programmatic attempts to ameliorate environmental problems helps demonstrate both government concerns and domestic political and economic constraints which influence programmes. What emerges is an almost bewildering variety of strategies responding to the specific environmental and social conditions of each country. While such variability does not easily lend itself to broad strategy recommendations for the region, it does demonstrate the rationale for promoting local involvement in the development of national and local strategies; that local concerns must be addressed to ensure observance of environmental policy guide-lines and to avoid the transformation of these policies into costly and counter-productive exercises in unpopular law enforcement (see esp. Cernea's 1989 review of social forestry projects).

On a more abstract plane, this study argues for a change in the perception of deforesting farmers in Central America, and possibly in all Latin America. Deforestation is often portrayed as an economic strategy, especially as a beef production strategy (Parsons 1976; DeWalt 1982; Partridge 1984), a view which is only half correct (Edelman 1985). Deforestation is also a title establishment mechanism, in which cattle serve primarily to demonstrate active land use, and, I would argue, only secondarily as a source of income. Farmer decision-making with regard to new land is driven by the process of establishing title within the usufruct framework common to all Latin America (Hartshorn et al. 1982 and Sáenz and Knight 1971 describe the practical and legal aspects of land titling for Costa Rica, and Bunker 1985 and Goodland 1984 do the same for Brazil). From the perspective of forest resource conservation, the distinction is crucial, since it addresses fundamental concerns of the farmers, whose co-operation will be necessary to carry out environmental management in the region.

Dangers of Misdirected Policies in Land Settlement

International attempts to influence patterns of land use in Latin America have often had disastrous environmental impacts. The promotion of land reform through the Alliance for Progress should have eased pressure on forest resources by providing alternative sources of livelihood for poor farmers; national and international political realities combined to turn "land reform" programmes into major forces for environmental destruction (Bunker 1985; Moran 1983). Environmental initiatives have the same capacity for generating unintended consequences.

With the growing concern over tropical forest depletion, there has been a tendency to characterize deforestation as a struggle between multi-national fast-food chains and conservationists. Poor farmers are seen to be merely camouflage in a process dominated by wealthy, large-scale landowners tied to international markets. While such a formulation may correctly identify various actors in the causal chain, it often misconstrues motives and patterns of benefits. The danger of this misinterpretation is policy development which harms small farmers, creates an unnecessary political antagonism between conservation efforts and poor segments of developing country populations, and which is ineffective in controlling the problem of deforestation.

Attempts to control deforestation through the elimination of the beef market are based on a flawed perception of the economic context of deforestation. It is widely recognized that the undervaluation of forest resources is a primary cause of deforestation (Guppy 1984; Repetto 1988), as land managment strategies seek to replace the "unprofitable" forest with more profitable alternatives. However, the "unprofitable" nature of forest resources is due to prices which do not accurately reflect costs of replacement or "costs of production" for those products, since, as natural resources, no human effort was expended. The forest conservation strategy based on eliminating the beef market will save forest resources only if forest products are reasonably valued, and if beef production has expanded as a result of its over-valuation; if this is not the case, the end result may be increased environmental destruction, as beef producers shift to alternative profit-making strategies.

Cattle production in Central America presents an enigma. Detailed studies of production costs and returns on farms between 17 and 122 ha report negative incomes to farmers from animal production in six of eight areas in Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama (CATIE 1983). Citing examples from Central and South America, Ledec and Goodland (1989) arrive at similar conclusions. These somewhat surprising results suggest a need to reassess the rol of cattle production in deforestation, and more specifically, motivations for cattle production.

It can be argued that the persistence of cattle production in the face of relatively low profits is tied to problems of land tenure. The establishment of homestead title to land is tied to active use of farm land in forest areas. Interestingly, the usufruct principle extends even beyond forest areas; various authors (Downing and Matteson [1965]; Seligson [1980]) argue that invasion and squatting on underutilized lands are a spontaneous land reform process in Costa Rica, and by extension, in Central America; de Soto's (1989) discussion of land invasion in urban Lima suggests that this principle is generalized throughout Latin America. A critical element in the selection of land to be invaded is the actual intensity of use; abandoned lands are prime candidates for invasion and difficult to defend legally from the usufruct perspective. Animal production constitutes a relatively low-cost method for "actively" using land; animals keep lands clean, require little maintenance, and provide income to maintain the farm operation. The combination of constant use and the low number of permanent labourers (who as tenant farmers might also constitute a challenge to the landowner) is well adapted to the maintenance of title.

Changes in international beef prices eventually would cause a restructuring of the land maintenance tactic, possibly eliminating cattle production as a preferred strategy. However, the need for "active" land use will remain and may well lead to alternatives such as mechanized, extensive cropping strategies, possibly relying on extensive use of aircraft and herbicides to reduce labour demands. The outcome may be the development of new, more environmentally destructive methods for extensive land management. Time and effort spent in restructuring beef prices would be better spent increasing the value of forest products through legislation, marketing, research, or public action campaigns, thereby increasing the economic appeal of forestry.

The development of effective strategies for the protection of Central American environments within the context of the countries' development needs will require a clear understanding of motivations and strategies of the farmers using those environments.

Role of the Current Study

Central American land settlement programmes have evolved considerably over the past decades. The initial tendency to prescribe new land settlement as a generalized panacea for social, political, and economic ills of society has given way to a more circumspect appreciation of the potentially negative economic and environmental impacts of these programmes (Nelson 1977). In response, projects have incorporated new elements designed to alleviate environmental problems, address social concerns, and ensure economic viability. While not always successful, these efforts have been instructive with regard to interactions of farmers and policy.

New policy concerns which have emerged include (1) a more rational use of forest resources in colonization areas, (2) the stabilization of the colonization front, and (3) an increased emphasis on the characteristics of the participants in settlement programmer.

One of the most negative impacts of the usufruct based tenure system has been the careless destruction of valuable forest resources to establish title. Valuable timber species are cut and either burned or left on the ground to rot, destroying the forest as an ecosystem and the timber as a saleable commodity. The losses through forest destruction amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental damage and lost income; it is not uncommon for settlers to face the ultimate irony of purchasing building materials after clearing their own land. Control efforts have included (1) the creation of national forest agencies and lumber corporations, (2) the training and licensing of settlers to process and market wood from settlement areas, and (3) the requiring of forest harvesting plans controlled through permits.

The stabilization of the colonization front is a growing concern for settlement programmer. Settlement areas often serve as "jumping-off" points for forest penetration by commercial interests. New roads and infrastructure are used for lumber exploitation or to facilitate the entry of non-farming land speculators. Settlers themselves may use project settlements as a home base from which they try to claim and manage extensive landholdings in forest lands. A variety of strategies have been attempted by governments and projects to regulate access to adjacent forest lands: (1) requirements of timbercutting and transport permits, (2) the creation of local participant groups for timber exploitation and management, and (3) withholding of land titles for specified periods from settlers and threat of not granting title for land use infractions.

There has also been an increasing focus on screening participants in settlement projects in response to public and environmental concerns with what might be termed "settlement fraud." Individuals may join settlement programmes, not to farm, but to reap the benefit of land appreciation due to subsidized public infrastructural development and the private investments of their neighbours. These individuals may even serve as agents of large landholders, who are legally excluded from settlement lands; these pseudosettlers collude to obtain lands based on their own landless status, only then to turn over new lands in exchange for short-term employment or lump-sum payments. Such fraud is discouraged through (1) tenure conditionality based on patterns of land use (such that land may revert to the state), (2) residence period requirements and delayed titling, and (3) screening procedures to identify individuals unlikely to be successful farmers.

Although the measures described here have not been entirely successful as currently implemented, they will be elements of future strategies for environmental management in settlement areas. An appreciation of their successes and failures will form a sound basis for improving their application in the future.

The Colonization Areas

The five country reports are preceded by an overview of general conditions in Central America and a detailed description of the usufruct based land acquisition. Despite specific national variations, this pattern applies to the entire region.

The first country report deals with Costa Rica. Costa Rica is unique in a number of ways. Its democractic political tradition has presided over a relatively egalitarian (although clearly skewed) agricultural society, with wide access to public services and political channels. Costa Rica also has one of the most active parks and conservation programmes in the world, paradoxically accompanied by the highest rate of deforestation in Central America. Populist pressures for land settlement create a clear tension with conservation interests, while the economic strength of export agriculture argues against land reform meddling in farm lands of the export sector. The documentation of the land settlement process in Costa Rica is particularly rich, with numerous contributions by the geographer Gerhard Sandner, one example cited in Nelson's review of Latin American land settlement, and a rich literature on land reform (see esp. Seligson 1980).

In the Costa Rica case-study, two land settlement areas are described. The principal area described is the Atlantic lowlands, near the towns of Guácimo and Batán. The interplay of national political issues, local political groups, and technical production problems for the region impede both the settler selection process and land quality assessment by the land reform agency. A second case is introduced with the TaqueTaque settlement area in a national forest reserve, where attempts to regulate land use through control of land title have met with limited success. Ironically, these two relatively successful settlement areas strongly resist attempts to ensure long-term environmental viability through government planning.

Land settlement in Panama is a legal nightmare. Competing claims to jurisdiction within the government over large parts of Darién Province are confronted with a de facto land settlement process which also conflicts with those legal claims. Within the legal vacuum, national forestry and conservation agencies work to balance short-and long-term environmental needs with powerful commercial interests and, at the same time, to promote environmentally appropriate land use among settlers. Studies of Panamanian land settlement are aided by previous research by a number of authors (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982), who demonstrate the vicious cycle of forest clearing, soil depletion, and further deforestation.

During the time of this study, Nicaragua has been in a state of turmoil. A combination of international pressures and domestic concerns have led to circumstances of an extraordinary nature. The indigenous groups of the Atlantic lowlands have actively sought, through both armed and political means, more direct control over tribal lands traditionally made available to Hispanic Nicaraguan settlers by the Hispanic national government. At the same time, government plans have sought to convert the Atlantic coast from an area of small-scale private farms to collectives, beginning in Nueva Guinea. The plans envision sweeping government controls over land use of the region. Nevertheless, much of this planning is clearly contingent on wider political considerations, making it likely that the plans will not be permanent policy orientations.

Honduras confronts the most critical land settlement problems in Central America. As a poor country, there is an urgent need for both income generating resources and gainful activity for its inhabitants. The extensive forest lands of the country provide both; one study estimates that most of Honduras's good agricultural land remains in forest, a tantalizing observation for a country with scarce supplies of agricultural land. The Bajo Aguán settlement project was designed to incorporate such remote, fertile lands into the national economy and is the premier land settlement project in the Central American region.

Honduras's attempts to utilize forest resources are formalized in the Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR), which is mandated to oversee forest management throughout the entire country and to oversee the marketing of forest resources. COHDEFOR has been internationally recognized as a major innovator in participatory forest management, and at the same time, constitutes a major element in environmentally destructive land use.

The examples presented for Honduras correspond to relatively recent areas of forest settlement, one in the south of Olancho Province near the Patuca and Guayambre rivers, and the other in the north of Colon Province. The latter is adjacent to the Bajo Aguán project, but represents an independent, spontaneous settlement of the Bonito Oriental forest region. To the east of this settlement area lies the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, one of a kind in Central America and currently threatened by pressures from both Hondurans and international refugees.

The final country report is that of Guatemala, which presents a "worst case" scenario for land settlement through an unfortunate coincidence of national conditions. The densely populated highlands of Guatemala have long been recognized as requiring relief through the provision of additional farm land. Limited attempts in that direction were made in the Pacific lowlands, but the principal effort has been directed toward the northeastern escarpment of the highlands, in the Franja Transversal del Norte, despite persistent protests of environmental damage. Recurrent guerrilla activity in the country has drawn the military into direct involvement with land settlement. The tradition of centralized, top-down planning exacerbates problems in the area by creating environmentally well-intentioned but inadequately designed or researched plans.


Land settlement in Central America is a widespread and highly variable experience. The governments of the Central American countries face similar sets of problems, imposed by the similarities of environments, common concerns of international agencies and donors, and basic social and economic problems of developing countries. While no country in the region can be said to have encountered a "solution" to the problems of land settlement, the variety of experiments and programmes provides valuable experience for future efforts. An appreciation of what factors contributed to both the success and failure of these experiments will be an important step in the design of more effective strategies.


Land Settlement and Land Reform
The Dynamics of Land Settlement and Land Use
Patterns of Land Clearance
Ecological Regions of Central America
People and Land

A major part of the history of Central America has been the occupation of forest lands after the indigenous depopulation and reforestation which followed the Spanish conquest (Sauer 1966). The human population was concentrated around production areas for successive "booms" of cacao, dyes, wood, coffee, sugar, and bananas through the coming centuries (MacLeod 1973), slowly advancing into previously abandoned areas as population growth and new products created both a need for vegetation and commercial opportunities in those areas.

The continual process of colonization makes it difficult to clearly distinguish the often cited categories of "directed" and "spontaneous" colonization (Nelson 1977). Colonization of new lands became an element of Central American culture, where men were expected to clear land and produce timber (see esp. Heckadon Moreno 1981a and Hennessey 1978). Given the development of new social and economic conditions, this tradition presents serious problems. Cultural traditions adapted to an unending forest frontier have become ecological hazards as forest resources have been cleared for human use and the institutional framework which supported, and to some extent fostered, these traditions has come under close scrutiny.

The greater part of Central American colonization has occurred in the last 50 years. The economic focus of Central American countries has traditionally been quite restricted; for example, to the Canal Zone and the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, the coffee and dairy production areas in Costa Rica, the fertile Pacific coastal plain in Nicaragua, and the central highlands and Pacific lowlands of Honduras. This situation of small populations in restricted areas surrounded by seemingly endless forests has given rise to generalized policy orientations favouring colonization of forest areas. Costa Rica's first president, Juan Mora Fernandez, outlined this policy orientation in an 1828 message to the assembly of that country; the policy included awards of land and monetary compensation for individuals who colonized or who established transitable roads into forest areas (Gómez 1973). The development of the market for bananas encouraged the occupation of the best alluvial soils in low-lying tropical forest lands during the early part of the twentieth century, but the linkage of these enclaves to the national economies was weak (Hall 1982; Seligson 1980). Not until the 1930s and 1940s did most of these areas experience a large-scale colonization by independent farmers, after the appearance of uncontrolable diseases led to the abandonment of many banana plantations (see, for example, Stouse's [1965] discussion of the occupation of abandoned banana lands in Costa Rica).

Sandner (1962: 1-7) documents in detail the process of colonization for Costa Rica, differentiating six forms of colonization, which vary from scattered individual efforts at colonization to large-scale, governmentally or privately organized projects for occupying new lands. Sandner's characterization of a virtual continuum of land settlement strategies, as opposed to the "planned-spontaneous" dichotomy, is a more realistic appreciation of the process, since "planned" colonizations inevitably have their spontaneous adherents, while spontaneous activities will also include eventual planning by government agencies as they attempt to address the basic needs of growing populations in remote areas.

Colonization in Central America has been for the most part a spontaneous process, in which farmers inform themselves of available lands and occupy them through their own initiative with the passive support of the government (see esp. Sandner 1962). As implied in President Mora's address, the development of access roads has been the key to the occupation of new areas. As transportation has improved to permit access to markets for the sale of agricultural products and for the provision of basic goods such as clothes and tools, former forest areas have come under cultivation. In the policy realm, the corollary to the national colonization efforts was the recognition of usufruct as a primary element of land use claims, to give colonists added security even in the face of legal, but inactive, ownership.

Major colonization projects for tropical forest areas have been rare; many "colonizations" have in fact been the appropriation of existing farm lands for small farmers (C.W. Minkel 1967 refers to several examples, and Salazar 1962 mentions specific cases from Costa Rica). The abandonment of banana areas affected by disease gave rise to the colonization of the Valle de Aguán in Honduras and the Caribbean coastal plain in Costa Rica (Nelson 1977). The expropriation of German farms during World War 11 provided land for resettlement in the Pacific coastal areas and in the northern tropical areas of Guatemala. The process of land invasion and expropriation is common in much of Central America (Downing and Matteson 1965). These sorts of activities do not always affect tropical forest areas, since they may consist in the partitioning among new owners of established farms.

A few major colonization projects designed to occupy tropical forest lands can be identified. The Río Guayape Project in east-central Honduras was conceived to include more than 78,000 ha. The Rigoberto Cabezas Project in eastern Nicaragua was designed to include more than 1,000,000 ha (C.W. Minkel 1967). Guatemala's Franja Transversal del Norte (FTN) has been a major area for colonization; the first designated projects were for a total of 50,000 ha, but the area ultimately considered for colonization is over 880,000 ha. The area of colonization is much larger still if Petén is considered, since this is Guatemala's largest department and borders the FTN. In Panama, the province of Darién has been the focus of colonization, especially since the extension of the Pan-American Highway. Costa Rica's northern lowland plain has been colonized with government support, and in some areas under government supervision (see Seligson 1980), but for the most part colonizers have been individually motivated and financed.

Land Settlement and Land Reform

The Charter of Punta del Este and the initiation of the Alliance for Progress presented a new set of problems for Latin American land settlement policies. The process of occupying forest lands prior to that time was seen to be a question of economic development, and the sizes of farms seemed to be a secondary concern. With the introduction of international financing for land reform, the more haphazard process of spontaneous colonization came to be formalized in organized, fundable activities.

After Punta del Este, it was recommended that international aid to agriculture be tied to social policy objectives (Dorner 1972; Montgomery 1984). Multilateral and bilateral funding (including that of USAID) influenced patterns of Latin American development by tying funding approval to land reform. Latin American governments responded by using settlement schemes as an alternative to land reform (Domike 1970), with small or landless farmers being awarded plots of land in tropical forests to forestall demands for the redistribution of lands in traditional agricultural areas. The pressure to create small farms and the existence of unused tropical lands were an unfortunate combination of circumstances. As a result, traditional peasant grain producers were transferred to new environments which would require new crops and production techniques for success. International funds flowed into these same areas to help develop new technologies and opportunities. The inability of governments to make hard, short-term choices for longterm benefits very clearly contributed to growing environmental problems.

In Central America, land reform and lowland colonization are handled by the same institutions. While the Alliance for Progress is one reason for this coincidence, another is the common characteristic of land settlement and land reform, the problem of transferring title. Given the usufruct orientation of land ownership, and the possibility that even formal titles may be subject to review, the process of land titling is very similar in both the reform and settlement situations, involving the evaluation of competing title claims and of the use and occupation status of the land. Even after recognizing the broad set of activities carried out by land reform agencies (including organizational development, agricultural technology transfer and planning, marketing, infrastructural development, inter-institutional coordination), their basic function is the validation and legalization of land titles, both in new and in traditionally established agricultural areas.

The Dynamics of Land Settlement and Land Use

The dynamic of land use change in Central America revolves around the process of land titling. This dynamic can be divided into several phases. Special conditions and problems of each phase can be identified for the purpose of analysis. The recognition of different phases of titling and of the conditions of each phase is a prerequisite to any discussion of land settlement and land reform.

The process of land settlement fits within the farm technology framework of Ester Boserup (1965), according to which land use undergoes a process of intensification identified with agricultural development in response to increasing population pressure. The first stages of land use are extensive, relying principally on the mining of forest resources (either flora or fauna). The next phase is one of extensive agriculture or animal production. Production depends on the natural fertility of the topsoil and involves minimal inputs of labour or chemicals. Fertility maintenance is achieved through low levels of production intensity and/or natural regeneration of fallow species and forage. The final stage is one of intensification, with increased applications of chemical, infrastructural, and labour inputs to maintain soil fertility and productivity.

The Boserupian focus employed here recognizes that the different stages of land use are not evolutionary but circumstantial, in that they do not reflect so much farmers' technical or cultural capabilities as the socio-ecological conditions of the area. Farmers often possess technical knowledge for intensive agricultural systems, but the local conditions constrain the employment of intensive techniques due either to price constraints or limitations of inputs. More fundamentally, the existence of adjacent lands which yield higher marginal productivities to labour through the use of extensive techniques may discourage attempts at agricultural intensification. (Painter [1987] describes such a situation for lowland Bolivian settlers). Farmers are unlikely to purchase productivity-enhancing technology when they can realize higher net returns through cheaper, "less technical" methods.

Boserup's framework is especially relevant in the context of deforestation, since much of that problem revolves around the question of "productivity," without specifying productivity of what or the inputs considered in the comparison. Deforestation is often cited as an irrational use of resources in which high-value forest species are destroyed to be replaced by non-sustainable food-crop production. Nevertheless, any discussion of productivity must recognise that such a measure requires the definition of a "product"; since poor land users need food, productivity can be rationally measured in that metric.

In many cases, another "product" of interest is tenure title security, improved through the utilization of the land. Activities which clearly demonstrate use are given priority by Central American farmers in an attempt to strengthen usufruct claims to land, although these activities are not always the most productive in terms of cash income or long-term land use stability. The elimination of natural forest is considered one of the clearest and strongest demonstrations of active land use.

The phases of intensification broadly correspond to phases of land titling. The phase of lowest intensity exploitation corresponds to a period of exploration and initial claims by agriculturalists. In Latin America, the majority of national lands are available for homesteading, but contradictory claims often arise between homesteaders and non-local claimants with legal rather than usufruct bases for their claims. The claims of usufruct possessors of land grow stronger with time of occupation, so the earliest "settlers" in a forest region are essentially testing the legal waters to see if their usufruct claims will be disputed. Initial usufruct claims require minimal actual use of the land, in some cases the mere act of fencing land being sufficient to demonstrate the land is being "actively" utilized. When land is later transferred to another farmer through a "letter of sale" (carta de yenta), the usufruct claim is strengthened by the transaction itself, since it implies that there are no active competing claims to the land, and further documents the history of use.

The following phase of settlement is one of farm consolidation. Land is more completely cleared, and significant investments are made on the farm, especially in buildings, more secure fencing, and other farm infrastructure. During the earlier phase of occupation, these investments are not justified, due to the possibility that possession will be lost through legal proceedings. Investments may even be counter-productive at that stage, since the increased value and desirability of the land may in and of themselves encourage competing claims by raising the rewards of a successful title challenge. During the consolidation phase, the possibility of losing land through legal procedures continues, but the economic burden of these challenges decreases with time; as the farmer builds equity and a usufruct history on the farm, the costs of a title challenge increase for the challenger, as do the farmer's economic and legal capacity for meeting such a challenge. Agricultural practices remain extensive, with long rotations, limited improvements in pastures, and the gradual elimination of forest areas on the farm.

The final phase is one of intensification, or what is generally recognized as "agricultural development." Intensive agricultural techniques become more generalized within the local community, and local organizations are formed to co-ordinate activities and to pressure government agencies to provide such basic services as road construction and maintenance, water supply, health posts, and schools.* In the final phase, the combination of higher levels of investment, long periods of documented use of the land, and the existence of community organizations result in a relatively secure tenure arrangement.

Land titling itself is another, independent, consideration. Given the existence of the usufruct orientation, a legal title in itself does not guarantee land tenure security. It does establish a strong claim to the land and considerably enhances a usufruct claim. Due to the cost of titling and the time and special knowledge required, farmers often do not go through a formal titling process. Over half the farms in Central America probably have no formal title. Land titling may occur at any point in the process of occupation, but depends largely on the wealth of the owner. Wealthier owners establish formal title earlier on in the occupation process, but even farmers of more modest means seek titles as land value increases.

The process of land titling is not only a legal and social process, but a political one as well. At the initiation of the process, a piece of land is no more than a statistic from the perspective of the government. No taxes are generated, and there is no clear relation between individuals on the land and the government. Lands may even be occupied by foreign nationals who feel more moral and political commitment to their country of origin. The establishment of usufruct, the registration of purchase and sale transactions in legal documents, the formation of local groups of land holders, and finally the formalization of these groups in political entities (municipalities) and of the land in legal entities (titled lands) represent sucessive levels of incorporation of land and individuals into the national life.

This dynamic of land occupation is fundamental to patterns of land use in Central America. The occupation of land, the uses to which it is put, and most importantly, the disposition of standing forest are all most clearly understood in that context. Theoretically, planned colonization projects are designed to correct the deficiencies of this informal titling and occupation process. For a number of reasons, however, informal titling still underlies formal projects, despite efforts to the contrary. Farmers still transfer land using "letters of sale," and settlement projects often follow settlers into new areas, either in an attempt to regularize the informal settlement or to begin an alternative, formal settlement procedure in a nearby area. Planned projects frequently come into contact with informally titled land and at times are forced to address land questions in those terms.

Patterns of Land Clearance

Although peasant farmers are often the immediate agents of land clearance, their actions are not always motivated by long-term farming interests. Poor farmers react to the larger social and economic environment, with its economic limitations and opportunities, and may clear land which is ultimately used by other, possibly larger, farmers.

Heckadon Moreno and McKay's work in Panama (1982) has provided a descriptive basis for understanding both the cultural and ecological dynamics of the land clearance process. As the traditional agricultural areas of Panama have come to suffer increased pressure on farm-land resources, farmers from the "interior provinces," especially from Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula, have migrated into the tropical forest areas of the country. These "Santeño" farmers recognize the limited agricultural capacity of the newly cleared lands, and in many cases plan to abandon the lands after a few years of grain production. As grain yields decrease, pasture is planted, until the farm has been completely converted; the farmer sells this "improved" land to an interested buyer, often a wealthier, established landowner, and moves on to the next forest area.

The ultimate objective of the Santeño pioneer is to achieve the status of those individuals to whom he sells his exhausted farm. This objective is at once culturally and economically motivated. The image of the cattle rancher as an aristocrat and a holder of high social status is a powerful motive for poor farmers. Cattle ranchers are by definition wealthy; the possession of a large herd and a large farm constitutes a level of capital holdings beyond that of the average farmer. Cattle ranching is less physically demanding than farming, since labour requirements are relatively low. In economic terms, returns to capital (land and animals) are relatively low, while to labour are quite high.

Over time, the tradition of land clearance has created what Heckadon (Heckadon Moreno 1981a) has termed the "culture of pastures," incorporating wealth and status objectives in a broad cultural framework. A man's capacity to clear land has become a cultural validation of personal worth and a motivation independent of the economic aspects of the process. The strength of these cultural motivations has tended to maintain the "culture of pastures" life-style and activities, even beyond the limits of their economic adaptiveness. While Heckadon's formulation specifically describes the farmers of Panama, reflections of this "culture of pastures" mentality can be seen throughout Central America.

In some cases, land clearance by poor farmers for ultimate use by wealthier land users is undertaken on a contractual basis. Landless farmers are offered the use of forest land with the requirement that they use it for a few years and return it to the owner with pasture sown. In areas of poor soils, this arrangement is attractive to poor farmers, since the quality of land does not permit the establishment of permanent farms in any case; the farmers prefer to use land for only the first few years after forest clearance, and pasture can be established along with the last grain crops. This pattern is widely reported throughout Latin America (Partridge 1984).

In other cases, wealthy landowners may find themselves constrained by environmental protection legislation which limits land clearance. Poor farmers are exempt under certain legislation, in the belief that prohibiting their land clearing would deny them a livelihood as agriculturalists, or that lumber harvesting on a small scale is for personal rather than commercial use. Lenience in the application of land clearance legislation may also be a question of enforcement pragmatics; it would be virtually impossible to control all tree clearance by small farmers, and rather than become involved in an acrimonious, selective enforcement schedule, environmental agencies may simply focus on larger landholders. To avoid legal constraints, wealthy land users may indirectly "invite" small farmers onto their land by letting it be known that they will not eject farmers from forest areas; small farmers are expected to clear land, use it for subsistence agriculture for several years, and finally abandon it (preferably with pasture sown) to the legal landowner. Another variation is for logging operations to invite in small farmers, who fell and prepare trees within logging concessions while opening land to farm.

Patterns of land clearance and land tenure merge in an overall strategy to con*ont legal problems involved in land settlement. Since land in frontier areas may be legally restricted either by prior ownership or by environmental legislation, land clearance may bring with it certain risks. The practice of transferring "title" from the land clearer to a secondary owner deflects some risk by permitting the owner to truthfully state that he (or she) is not responsible for any illegal clearing and that money was transferred in good faith that the previous "owner" had made proper legal arragements.

Ecological Regions of Central America

The pattern of Hispanic land settlement in Central America closely follows ecological patterns. Colonizing populations have first occupied the drier and more temperate zones, moving into the most humid regions only as a last resort (see maps 1 and 2). The occupation of the humid regions has brought along with it a series of problems, ranging from the need to identify appropriate crops to the development of human support systems (for health and transportation) which could withstand the special problems of the high humidity.

Central America is an area of some 516,000 km², with a population of more than 25 million. This relatively small area has been repeatedly cited as an example of climatic and life-form diversity for its unique geographical situation (see esp. Janzen 1983). Its position between the Pacific and Caribbean weather systems, combined with the attitudinal effects of the central mountain chain, create a broad range of climatic zones. In addition to the climate diversity, Central America's role as a land bridge between two major continents has resulted in a concentration of species seldom seen in such a small area. The richness of species and climatic diversity has created a mosaic of ecological communities, which has been catalogued by Holdridge (1979) in his work on life-zone ecology.

For present purposes, the range of climates can be simplified to three geographicalclimatic zones (see map 2): the Atlantic lowlands, the central highlands, and the Pacific lowlands. The most extensive zone is the Atlantic lowlands, covered with remnants of dense broad-leaf forest, and in northern Nicaragua, open pine savannah. The defining characteristic of this zone is the short (or non-existent) dry season (Dulin 1984). In general, precipitation ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm annually.

The area is generally below 600 m in elevation, with average annual temperatures greater than 20° C. On the Caribbean coast of Panama, the area forms a narrow fringe, but beginning in Costa Rica and extending north through Honduras, the lowlands of the "Mosquitia" stretch in places to more than 100 km inland. The Atlantic lowlands narrow again between Trujillo, Honduras, and the Guatemalan border, but broaden again to become the lowlands of Belize and the Guatemalan Petén. There are small areas on the Pacific coast which share the same climatic pattern, especially on the peninsula of Osa in Costa Rica and in parts of the peninsulas of Nicoya in Costa Rica and Azuero in Panama.

Map l. Migration patterns in Central America.

The absence of a dry season in this zone creates serious problems for agricultural production and human habitation in general. Maize often germinates on the stalk or suffers attacks of moulds and bacteria as a result of high humidity; beans likewise suffer from insect and fungus attacks in most years. These are also areas which present special problems in the control of disease and in road construction and maintenance. As a result, the Atlantic lowland climate zone has been the last to be settled by humans, and is the area where tropical rain forests have survived.

The second climatic zone corresponds to the central mountain chain which runs the length of the isthmus. It is characterized by a marked dry season and moderate temperatures; rainfall is moderately heavy (1,000-3,000 mm). Two highland areas can be identified. The northern highland stretches from Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and ends in northern Nicaragua. The southern highland runs from northern Costa Rica to central Panama. Generally speaking, the northern highland is drier than the southern. Naturally existing pine stands can be found throughout the northern highland but are non-existent in the south (Denevan 1961).

Map 2. Simplified climatic map of Central America, with lowland humid colonization regions and physical features.

A third zone is constituted by the Pacific lowlands of the isthmus. The identifying characteristic of this zone is the extended dry season, which may reach eight months in southern Honduras. Annual precipitation ranges from 800 to 4,000 mm, but the high temperatures and high evapo-transpiration make this an arid region through part of the year.

The dry seasons in the central highlands and the Pacific lowlands have favoured human occupation. These zones are still the most heavily populated of the isthmus, although in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the populations of the Atlantic lowlands. Agriculture, too, is concentrated in these same zones. Except for the ports and the major banana producing areas, the Atlantic lowlands remained until recently sparsely populated.

The factor which seems to have most facilitated human occupation in the isthmus is the ability to use fire for land clearance and land maintenance. This is only possible where there is a dry season. The use of fire in land management is pre-Columbian in origin (see esp. Budowski 1985); early explorers found large parts of the isthmus to be "grasslands" (Sauer 1966), and the distribution of pine forests seems to be tied to the use of fire (Johannessen 1963; Denevan 1961). When European settlers began to intensively manage the Pacific lowlands through the use of fire, they were following a pattern of land management in use by Central American aboriginal populations.

It is important to realize that the vegetation of the Central American isthmus has not been static over the past centuries. The most notable recent change in land cover accompanied the depopulation after European contact (MacLeod 1973), when natural forests regenerated in large parts of the isthmus (see esp. Sauer 1966). The most striking example is Darién, which was reported to be a savannah by early Spanish explorers. In the 400 years following the conquest of the New World, Darién came to be virtually a climax forest, and only in recent years has been occupied again by sedentary agricultural populations. Other, less extensive examples are found in the highlands of Nicaragua and Honduras. Columbus reported intensive agriculture and high population densities along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Panama (Denevan 1961). Archaeological evidence suggests a similar process took place in Petén, after the Maya collapse in the first millennium A.D. (Pohl 1985; Edwards 1986).

The Central American isthmus presents a complex pattern of climatic and ecological variation. Its geographical position, climatic conditions, and history combine to define a patchwork of ecological zones superposed by a pattern of human occupation and abandonment that has created environments differentiated by their stages of succession and the local ecology.

People and Land

A fundamental aspect of land settlement is the pressure of the human population on existing land resources. While population is fairly simple to document, land and forest resources present a more difficult problem.

Population Density

Central American population densities are not homogeneous. El Salvador has by far the highest population density, and for all practical purposes, colonization has long since occupied all forest lands. Guatemala and Costa Rica have the next highest population densities, and in both countries the areas still available for colonization are limited. Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua have the lowest densities and are the countries for which large-scale colonization may still be physically possible (see table 1). These disparities in population densities can explain regional tensions to a certain extent, as in the case of the "Football War" between Honduras and El Salvador (Durham 1979), although such a simple Malthusian framework quickly breaks down in dealing with relations between Central American countries.

Table 1. Land area, population, and dense forest cover in Central America

  Area Pop.a Density Dense forest  
Country (km) (000s) (inhab./km) 1980b Forest(%)
Costa Rica 50,899 2,791 54.83 1,638,000 32.18
El Salvador 20,865 4,934 236.47 141,000 6.76
Guatemala 108,888 8,434 77.46 4,442,000 40.79
Honduras 112,087 4,679 41.74 3,797,000 33.88
Nicaragua 148,005 3,501 23.65 4,496,000 30.38
Panama 75,648 2,274 30.06 4,165,000 55.06
  516,392 26,613 51.54 18,679,000 36.17

aPopulation figures from IDB 1988.

bFigures from FAO 1981.

Incursions by Farmers on Forest Resources

The discussion of "forest resources" is complicated by the variety of definitions which might be applied. When speaking of "deforestation" problems, a common image is that of an agricultural frontier marked by clear-cutting up to the edge of the remaining "forest resource." Nevertheless, the category of forest resources includes many kinds of forest landscapes in addition to dense "virgin" forests. Forests can be disturbed by humans with varying degrees of intensity, including low-impact hunting and gathering, selective harvest of tree species, long fallow "shifting" agricultural patterns, and maintenance and management of "natural" or cultivated forest areas on established farms.

In an FAO review of Latin American Forest resources (FAO 1981), more than a dozen categories of forest lands were differentiated in an attempt to systematize information for future resource management planning. From a perspective of land settlement, these categories can be reduced to unintervened forests, intervened forests, and remnant forests. Table 2 presents a breakdown following FAO (1981) of forest cover in Central America.

The FAO categories of "open forest," "disturbed forest," and "brush" are combined to create the category of remnant forests mentioned above. "Open forests" are generally grazing lands with some trees. The trees are often left in pastures intentionally for fodder, shade, or eventually for harvest as lumber. "Disturbed forests" and "brush" refer to secondary growth, which may be incorporated into either a long or short fallow system. In some cases this last category overlaps with "brushy" agricultural crops such as coffee. (The FAO'S classification was based to a certain extent on satellite imagery or aerial photos, leading to the merging of forest types on the basis of their aerial appearance.) Remnant forests may include on-farm forests or wood lots or "agroforestry" combinations such as coffee or cacao with shade trees, fruit orchards, or home gardens.

Table 2. Forest cover in Central America (in 1,000s of ha)


Dense forest

Disturbed Brush Total
Unfarmed Protected W/access
Costa Rica 548 320 770 160 120 120 2,038
El Salvador 116 0 25 0 22 293 456
Guatemala 2,220 400 1,822 100 360 1,505 6,407
Honduras 873 759 2,165 200 680 1,220 5,897
Panama 2,125 1,222 818 0 124 0 4,289
Total 5,882 2,701 5,600 460 1,306 3,138 19,087
Percentage 30.82 14.15 29.34 2.41 6.84 16.44 100.00
As percentage of 5 country total area  
15.97 7.33 15.20 1.25 3.55 8.52 51.81

The FAO equivalents of the column labels are Unfarmed = NHCfluv + NHcflm; Protected = NHCf2; W/access = NHCfluc; Open forest = NHC/NHO; Disturbed = NHCA; Brush = NH.

"Dense forests with access" are the intervened forests mentioned above which have been logged and now have at least moderately serviceable logging roads. These forests are likely to contain settlers who are clearing land and establishing usufruct rights. Agriculture appears as clearings in the forest.

"Unfarmed dense forest" and "protected dense forest" correspond to the remaining unintervened forests of the area. "Protected dense forest" is land which is legally preserved for future logging operations, parks, Indian reserves, watershed management, etc. The estimate of how disturbed these areas are depends on how optimistic one is with regard to the efficacy of forestry protection efforts. There are many known cases of incursions on forestry reserves, but there are no precise data as to how extensive these incursions are. Unprotected forest areas are those which, due to problems of access, terrain, climate, or land quality, have been unattractive to settlers.

Forest lands constitute 51 per cent of the total land area of Central America according to the calculations of the FAO. One-quarter of this forest land is recognized to be integrated into farm lands in some form; the percentages vary among the individual countries. Forty-five per cent of forest lands is unintervened, fourteen per cent due to legal protection. Twenty-nine per cent is exploited forest with road access for colonists.

Fifty-four per cent of the forest land identified by the FAO iS now part of the agricultural landscape. Part of this forest land has already been "domesticated" and forms part of the management strategy of existing farms. A slightly larger part of this forested land is in the process of being converted; these lands are being incorporated into settlers' farms, and the forests are being altered or removed for agricultural purposes. This study, then, refers to some 5.6 million ha of "dense forest land with access," which is approximately one-third of the forested area of Central America and one-sixth of the total land area.


In reviewing the process of land settlement in Central America, it is crucial to recognize the central importance of individual decision-making. While the largest and most visible colonization activities have taken place under the aegis of governmentally managed "colonization" programmes, the process of settlement, and the success achieved even within the government programmes, can best be understood in the context of individual settlers. Government programmes have facilitated, in some degree, the occupation of new lands, but these programmes have not been sufficient to achieve the broader goals of permanent, economically successful occupation.

Nowhere is the significance of individual activity more visible than in deforestation. The degree of deforestation which accompanies land settlement is in a certain sense a measure of the failure of government programmes to adequately guarantee land title; farmers prefer to rely on usufruct rights rather than government programmes to protect their new farms. Given the common and often very long bureaucratic delays in individual titling within colonization programmes, usufruct farmers may be justified in their decision. Even in areas where government programmes exist, it is common to find active populations of spontaneous settlers who find government programmes inadequate for their needs and, resisting attempts to incorporate them, directly compete with government-sponsored settlers for resources.

The individual nature of spontaneous colonization has contributed to a situation in which most of the areas identified as "forest lands" currently have human occupants. These occupants may not have formal titles, and can be found even in areas of dense forest. Any attempt to address problems of land settlement or deforestation must recognize that these forests are now in the hands of individual farmers whose most effective method for ensuring their title has been land clearance. Policies promoting "improved" land management may have just the opposite effect if they do not adequately address farmers' needs and concerns.

Historical Perspective on Costa Rican Land Colonization

Economic Importance of Tropical Lowlands

The tropical lowlands of Costa Rica have been of economic importance to the country since the seventeenth century, although the area has not been heavily populated due to a combination of factors, including health, defence, and climatic preferences. Since the colonial period, the production of cacao has been an activity of major economic importance. In the nineteenth century, banana production began and became a new focus of economic interest in the lowlands. A persistent factor in national interest in the tropical lowlands has been the desire to improve communications and transport, especially for exporting products from the Meseta Central via the Caribbean, transport between the Meseta and Pacific coast was well established in the colonial period, but access to the Atlantic coast has been a constant problem due to the heavy rains which have hindered road construction and maintenance.

Cacao was cultivated by pre-Columbian inhabitants of Costa Rica, but in the colonial period this cultivation was taken over by Europeans and descendants of African slaves in the coastal area near present-day Limón. Records from 1682 indicate that in the valleys of Matina and Suerre, there were 102,200 cacao trees in 55 haciendas. An analysis of rental records between 1650 and 1790 shows 192 renters, only 9 of whom were European; the rest were black or mulatto (Monge Alfaro 1980).

During the colonial period, the cacao production areas were dangerous not only for health reasons, but due to regular attacks by Indians and pirates. This area was officially ignored by the colonial government, since trade was prohibited through the Atlantic coast; colonial law required that all imports come from Spain by way of Guatemala and then be transported overland or through Pacific ports to the Meseta Central. Trade thrived through Atlantic ports despite danger and the official prohibition. The official neglect of the Atlantic coast left it defenceless, which resulted in regular raids by pirates and Indians, who would harvest ripe cacao and who, for at least one period, received tribute from Costa Rica.

In 1804, coffee was first introduced into Costa Rica, and its importance grew throughout the century. In spite of the economic expansion promoted by coffee, pressure on tropical agricultural lands was reduced due to the labour-intensive character of coffee production, which was carried out on small farms throughout the central highlands of the country. While it is generally agreed that there has been a tendency toward concentration of coffee holdings - beginning perhaps as early as the past century the distribution of coffee land was quite equitable as late as 1935 (Churnside 1981).

The development of the railroad to the Atlantic coast heavily influenced the process of colonization of the area. Several attempts to complete the railroad were made during the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1890 that Minor C. Keith was successful (Seligson 1980: 52). As a by-product of the railroad construction, 10,000 Jamaicans arrived in Costa Rica as labourers for the project, and many remained after its completion.

The exportation of banana began in 1880, when 360 banana stalks were shipped to New York. By 1884 this figure had risen to 420,000 (Monge Alfaro 1980). One of the major figures in banana production was Minor Keith, who developed several companies, including the United Fruit Company, as a complement to his activities in the railroad business.

Due to a combination of factors, there was little pressure on lowland tropical agricultural lands until well into the twentieth century. The requisites of coffee production and its distribution among small farms were probably of major importance in reducing the tendency for migration, since with a good source of income and a guaranteed demand for their labour, small landholders would be less motivated to test their luck in tropical lowland areas. Banana plantations provided a ready source of employment and occupied the best soils, which may also have reduced the development of lowland tropical farms outside the banana production areas. At the same time, other, less humid areas were available for colonization, especially in the areas of Guanacaste and San Isidro del General.

Colonization occurred on a reduced scale throughout Costa Rican history. To the south-west of the Meseta Central, cantonal administrative centres were legally recognized in Puriscal (in 1868) and in Orotina (in 1908). The dry coastal lowlands of Guanacaste saw the establishment of Liberia (1770), Santa Cruz (1821), Filadelfia (1839), and La Mansion (1890) in the foothills of the southern Nicoya Peninsula. The highlands of Tilaran were colonized from 1818 onward, first by large "hacendados" and later by small farmers (Sandner 1961). The area of Sarapiquf was a source of lumber throughout the nineteenth century, and attempts at colonization began in the San Carlos area as early as 1850. The rhythm of colonization speeded up in the 1930s.

Colonization in the 1930s

The Depression and the arrival of Panama Disease in the banana plantations gave a new impetus to land colonization in Costa Rica. Before 1930, the majority of the country was very sparsely populated outside the Meseta Central, with the population of the country concentrated in the coffee and, secondarily, banana production areas to meet the growing demand for these products. Earlier colonizations had moved at a leisurely pace, concentrating on the most desirable areas of new colonization zones. Although cantons had been established in the Nicoya Peninsula, the highlands of Guanacaste were still largely uninhabited. Also, the Valle del General was sparsely populated, as were the northern plain and the Atlantic coastal areas. In the 1930s major colonization movements were directed toward the border areas of Costa Rica, opening roads and farm land where previously there had been only forest and occupying forest areas which remained between previously established population centres.

The reduced demand for coffee and bananas caused by the Depression had a profound effect on the Costa Rican economy. As the importance of coffee had risen, Costa Rica went from self-sufficiency in basic grains to being a net importer (Seligson 1980); flour was purchased from Chile and California to make up the deficit. As the economic opportunities from export agriculture diminished in the 1930s, the natural increase in population could no longer be absorbed into cash-crop production, and jobless young farmers began pushing toward the frontier regions. This motivation toward land colonization was accentuated by Panama Disease, which destroyed many banana plantations. While the change of banana plantations to farm land may have ameliorated the demand for new forest land conversions (Stouse 1965), the diminishment of the banana industry as a source of work left in place a transportation infrastructure which facilitated access to new lands.

Sandner (1961) documents the process of colonization in Costa Rica during the twentieth century. The major colonization area was the Valle del General, southeast of San Jose, but there were numerous others, such as the Nicoya Peninsula, the central Pacific coastal areas, and the Sarapiquí-San Carlos areas. By mid-century these colonization areas had largely been occupied. Once access roads and basic services were established, populations grew rapidly. By the second half of the century, the colonization of tropical forest areas had fairly lost its characteristic "frontier" quality, as the forest came to be restricted to pockets between agricultural areas.

Colonization between 1930 and 1960 followed and reinforced Costa Rican perceptions regarding forests and land use. Historically, forests have been regarded in much the same way as had been the North American "frontier," as a source of new wealth, employment, and an opportunity for land-hungry farmers. Twentieth-century colonization bore out this perception to some extent; areas such as Nicoya and the Valle del General contained some good agricultural lands whose use had been limited by lack of transportation and lack of initiative. Nevertheless, the best soils were quickly occupied, and more recent colonization has had to concentrate on less appropriate land in more difficult conditions.

Recent Colonization in Costa Rica

Major colonization efforts are now restricted to the northern Atlantic plain, an area which extends west from the Caribbean coast to the chain of volcanoes which divide the plain from the drier Pacific lowlands, and from the foot of the Meseta Central north to the Nicaraguan border. Unoccupied forested areas still exist in the mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the southern part of the country, but these areas have recently been designated Indian reserves and national parks, and new colonists are being excluded.

The northern Atlantic plain is chiefly humid tropical forest (Holdridge 1979). Annual rainfall is variable, but most areas recieve 2,000 to 3,000 mm, with a "dry" season of three months from January to March, which in some years is marked only by a decrease in precipitation. Rainfall peaks occur in June and October-November. Most of the area lies below 100 m altitude.

While soils of the area suffer from the problems characteristic of high rainfall areas, there are areas of relatively good soils made up of volcanic alluvium.

A number of directed colonization efforts have been carried out in the area. Most notable are the Rio Frio-San Carlos area and Cariari. In the Rio Frio area, a number of colonization projects have been organized within areas of spontaneous colonization, making the differentiation of "directed" and "undirected" activities and results difficult. CATIE has been working in the Rio Frio area within the framework of an agreement with ITCO (now ADI) (Villegas Zamora 1980). Cariari is one small colony located near Guapiles, formed in the 1960s and adjacent to the spontaneous colonization area of Guacimo and the banana plantations of the "Linea Vieja," some of which have been converted to small farms. Both Cariari and Rio Frio have been successful in the establishment of small farms and the permanent settlement of migrant families. Formal technical improvement programmes especially directed toward these colonies have undoubtedly had important impacts (Villegas Zamora 1980; Jones 1983). Both areas are now experiencing a development of urban centres, population increase, and dramatic rises in land values. Cariari Colony is potentially one of great interest, since its design incorporated a plan for forest exploitation by the farmers (McKenzie 1972). No further work has been done with regard to the forestry activities in this colony.

To the east of Cariari lies the area of Batán. This settlement was initiated on abandoned banana plantation lands nearly at sea level (10 m) and surrounded by forests and squatter settlements. It has been an area of cacao production for several centuries (it lies 6 km from the town of Matina, mentioned above) and is close to the main highway which connects the port of Limón with the Meseta Central. The nearest town is Siquirres, and Batán itself is "urban" in a loose sense' with several blocks of businesses and dwellings bordering the railroad tracks. It has not acheived the urban growth of Guapiles, possibly due to the close proximity of the major urban centre of Limón (less than one hour by asphalt road) and of Siquirres (less than one-half hour). While it seems anomalous that an area along a major road is a "colonization" zone, this may be explained by the early establishment of large landholdings associated with the railroad and the banana industry. As other areas have been saturated with colonists, farmers have begun to challenge the large landholders.

Batán is still an important area for production of cacao, and there are several banana co-operatives in the area. A new crop is mechanized rice in flat humid lands. A government programme supports prices, but producers of the area have now reached their collective quota.

Current Management of Tropical Forest Areas in Costa Rica

In recent years, Costa Rica has made important strides toward protecting its remaining forest resources. National and international organizations have joined forces for an extensive campaign to establish biological reserves and national parks in areas of exceptional beauty and biological interest under the direction of the National Park Service (NPS). The National Forestry Directorate (NFD) has been charged with the management of all remaining forests in the country and has established a number of forest reserves and protection zones where deforestation has potentially damaging impacts on downstream populations or facilities. Another large block of forest land has been incorporated into Indian reserves, under the management of the National Commission for Indian Affairs (NCIA). These efforts have been surprisingly successful, and nearly 20 per cent of the total land area of Costa Rica is incorporated into some kind of land protection plan (see tables 3 and 4). To a large extent, the process of land colonization has been centralized under the Agrarian Development Institute (ADI); while the primary concern of the AD! has been land reform in areas of established farms, it is also the institution which processes demands for new land from forests.

The National Park Service

The National Park Service has been quite successful in protecting forest areas, in preventing forest destruction for agricultural or other purposes. Their policy is to resist all incursions on park land. When parks are formed, they try to buy legally established farms which remain within the park boundaries. * Squatters are informed that they are on park land and discouraged by park guards. Only one area under park service authority has problems with squatters (Biological Reserve R.B. Hitoy), and this problem arose during the prolonged process of acquisition of the land, when neither the former owners nor the park service had legal authority over the land.

Map 3. Costa Rica: provinces, cities, and protected areas.

Table 3. Costa Rica: protected areas, types of management, and managing agencies

Management class Agency No. Area (ha)
Forest reserves NFD 12 408,351
Protection zones NFD 13 60,671
Wildlife preserves NFD 5 15,483
Indian reserves ADI 13 276,379
Biological reserves NPS 9 21,688
National parks NPS 14 393,850
National monument NPS 1 218
Recreational areas NPS 5 659
Total   72 1,177,299

Source: Morales Díaz 1984.

Table 4. Breakdown of forest administration areas in Costa Rica

Management category
and name
Management category
and name
Forest reserves   Protection zones  
Matina 400 Caragres 4,000
Grecia 2,000 Escazú 7,000
San Ramón 7,800 Cerros de la Carpintería 2,000
Juan Castro Blanco 13,700 Rio Grande 1,500
Cordillera Volcánica Central 72,300 Atenas 700
Taboga 297 Río Tiribi 650
Arenal 18,325 Las Tablas 19,602
Rio Macho 91,922 Barbilla 12,830
Los Santos 62,000 Cabécar  
Golfo Dulce 70,000 La Selva 10,204
Cordillera Volcánica de


39,537 Quitirrisi 40
El Rodeo 2,085
Manglares 30,000 Cerro Turrubares  
Wildlife refuges   Recreational areas  

Rafael Lucal Rodríguez

75 Santa Ana 48
Ricardo Jimenez  
Caballero 7,523 Oreamuno 58
Tapanti 5,000 Cariari 13
Isla Bolanos 100 Laguna de Frayjanes 13
Cano Negro 9,969 Simon Bolívar  
  (Biological Park) 3
Indian reservations   National parks  
Cocles 5,538 Volcán Irazú 2,309
Chirripó 75,824 Volcán Poás 5,317
Tayni 22,803 Cahuita 1,067
Talamanca 62,253 Santa Rosa 21,913
Guatuso 2,744 Manuel Antonio 682
Guaymí Coto Brus 7,500 Rincón de la Vieja 14,083
Guaymí Abrojos   Barra Honda 2,295
Moctezuma 1,480 Chirripó 50,150
Boruca-Térraba 31,981 Corcovado 41,788
Ujarrás-Salitre-Cabagra 56,561 Tortuguero 18,946
Quitirrisí 1,710 Braulio Carrillo 31,401
Zapatón   Palo Verde 9,460
  Isla del Coco 2,400
National Monument Talamanca (La Amistad) 192,000
Guayabo 218    
Biological reserves   Total areas  
Cabo Blanco 1,172 Forest Reserves 408,281
Islas Negritos y Guayabo 143 Wildlife Refuges 22,667
Isla Pájaros 4 Indian Reservations 268,394
Isla del Cano 200 National Monument 218
Carara 5,500 Biological Reserves 21,678
Hitoy 9,144 Protection Zones 60,611
Monteverde 4,500 Recreational Areas 135
La Selva (Research   National Parks 393,811
Station) 880    
Las Cruces (Research


135 Total 1,175,795

Source: Morales Díaz 1984.

One example of the park service's success can be seen in Corcovado Park, on the Osa Peninsula. Corcovado shares a long boundary with the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, managed by the NFD. The Golfo Dulce Reserve has been invaded by squatters who have been encouraged by the gold-mining activities in the reserve. No method for controlling this invasion has been found, and the NFD was well disposed to a plan to manage the reserve jointly with the AD! in order to stabilize the population through formal land titling and to try to bring them into a legal framework for controlling forest cutting. This plan has not yet been financed, and there has been no improvement in the condition of the reserve. Corcovado Park, on the other hand, does not have any invasion problem (as of June 1984), and employs 20 park guards to control the entry of squatters. The only farmers who remain within the park boundaries are those who had legal title to their land before the establishment of the park.

Another example of NPS success in avoiding forest destruction can be seen in the Altos de Coton, on the Panama border. This has been the site of a major conflict between peasant squatters and national officals, and the area in question abuts lands administered by the AD] and the NFD. According to NPS officials, the activities of some six guards in the Las Tablas Protection Zone (jointly administered by the NFD and the NPS and managed by the NPS) has been sufficient to avoid the inclusion of more than a small part of the park lands in the conflict.

In at least one instance, the NPS relinquished control over parts of a biological reserve which were not appropriate for inclusion under their administration. The reserve in question is Carara, which, in the beginning, included some areas of abandoned pasture and an isolated watershed protection area. Organized squatters invaded part of the reserve, and were ejected, but they brought pressure to bear through the actions of local political officials, so the NPS acceded to the separation of some abandoned pastures which, according to an NPS official, were not really appropriate for inclusion in the reserve. Part of the separated lands became farms, and the rest became the Cerro Turrubares Protection Zone. The NPS strategy of releasing lands which they are not prepared to manage may be important in their success in protecting the areas they can manage.

National Commission for Indian Affairs

Indian reservations occupy more than 276,000 ha in Costa Rica. These lands are generally forested, and NCIA officials report that these lands are not being deforested. The Indian populations do not practice extensive agriculture or commerical logging. Furthermore, the Indians assist in keeping squatters out of the reservations, either by advising them that they are on reservation land or by informing the appropriate authorities. The exceptional cases of Indians who consistently alienate reservation lands through attempted "sales" (Indians have no legal right to sell reservation land) are controlled through "development committees" composed of local Indians which may order their exclusion from the reservation.

The National Forestry Directorate

The largest category of protected lands in Costa Rica is forest reserve, under the administration of the NFD. The NFD also jointly administers protection zones with the NPS. The management of forest reserves and protection zones falls under the direction of the Reforestation Program of the NFD. Each forest reserve and protection zone has its own operative plan, which is to serve as a basis for a more detailed management plan. To date, only La Carpintera (a protection zone) has a management plan. The plan for the largest forest reserve, Rio Macho, is being written up as a thesis project by a CATIE student. In principle, none of these lands is available for colonization, but there has been a constant pressure on the NFD to release lands. Some reserves have been colonized by squatters, and the Golfo Dulce and Los Angeles reserves were mentioned as having especially severe problems. The Los Angeles Reserve was established after the town of Santo Tomas had been established within its limits, creating a situation of constant pressure by farmers. The NFD strategy is one of legalizing farmers within the reserve by giving land titles, thus cleary establishing which lands are occupied and which not in order to prevent further squatting. Farm lands within the reserve will be zoned as to appropriate land use, and the NFD'S power to authorize land titling will be used as an enforcement tool.

The NFD has not been as successful as the NPS in controlling access to protected areas, possibly due to the ambiguity of their mandate in the management of forest areas. The head of the department of reforestation for the NFD reports that the objective in managing forest reserves is to incorporate them into the national economy. While this orientation is appropriate for a governmental agency, it surely gives rise to a need for many decisions as to whether an immediate economic contribution is more desirable than a more valuable future or long-term contribution. The existence of these alternatives may hamper decision-making and thus cause an ineffective protection of forest areas. The case of the Taque-Taque colonization illustrates this point.

Taque-Taque is located near the town of Pejibaye, in Jimenez Canton, Cartago. It represents an innovative plan for colonization involving forest reserve lands; it was initiated in 1977 and is jointly administered by the NFD and the ADI. The "colony" is a mountain top near Pejibaye, which itself is located in an agrarian reform colony established in 1963 in a banana production area. Pejibaye sits in a small valley and the establishment of new colonies is required by the growing population of the area. Both the NFD and the AD! see this pressure as an indication of the success of the Pejibaye project (another colony, El Humo, was established by the AD' in the same area in 1974).

The innovative aspect of the Taque-Taque colonization is that it is a first attempt by the NFD to manage the occupation of forest areas for agricultural purposes. The NFD had managed the colonization of the Chambacu area near Ciudad Quesada, but the land had already been deforested at the time the project began. TaqueTaque abuts the R'o Macho Forest Reserve (91,992 ha) and comprises an abandoned farm which straddles the border of the reserve. Part of the 340 ha colony has been carved out of the forest reserve and temporarily loaned to farmers for five year renewable loan periods.

Some parts of the Taque-Taque area are too steep to be safely cultivated, and the objective of the management project is for the NFD to analyse land use potential and recommend appropriate uses through the activity of the national level agroforestry programme. The basis for activity to date has been in large part a student thesis, in which land in the area was stratified by appropriate land use. These recommendations are being reviewed by NFD personnel for incorporation into the final package of recommendations to farmers. Following the land use recommendations in the thesis, land in Taque-Taque has been stratified into usage categories of "protected," "restricted," and "unrestricted." These strata correspond to absolute protection (no agriculture), agro-forestry (especially macadamia), and general agricultural use (annual crops or pastures).

The activity by the NFD in Taque-Taque is still restricted to investigation, and no recommendations to farmers or attmepts at control have yet been made. Some agricultural activity is being introduced into the area, but the main activity seems to be extraction of fuelwoodfor the coffee processing plant in Pejibaye.

NFD officials are doubtful of their ability to enforce their technical recommendations, despite their seemingly powerful weapon of last resort, the revocation of the temporary permission to use the land. The Taque-Taque colonization project was a response to pressure from the local community to provide new lands for younger farmers. The NFD acceded to this pressure in permitting the land from the forest reserve to be considered for colonization, and a recurrent theme regarding government officals in this study has been the inability of government agencies to resist the demands of local political pressure groups.

The Agrarian Development Institute

The Agrarian Development Institute is the largest land manager in Costa Rica. In 1984, the AD! reports that it has settled 40,326 farmers on 793,940 ha of land in the last 23 years (ITCO, the predecessor of the ADI, was formed in 1961) (Barahona Riera 1980: 225). The AD! is the agency responsible for the management of nearly all colonization, both on forested lands and on established farms, and is called upon in cases of invasion of forest reserves or Indian reservations.

The ADI is primarily concerned with settling farmers on land; environmental concerns may be recognized and acted upon at a personal level, but are not generally included in policy decisions. For questions of forest use, the general AD' policy is to look to the NFD to supply whatever guide-lines are necessary, while the AD! tends to the problems involved in establishing farmers on land. In some cases, for example the 12,800 ha Barbilla Protection Zone, the administration of the area is jointly assumed (in this case by the ADI, NFD, and NPS), with the understanding that each agency will carry out its function within the designated area. Another attempt at collaboration was the previously mentioned plan for the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, where the AD! and the NFD were to collaborate in the management of the area to control deforestation by colonist-farmers through the formalization of farm titles and the application of legal controls. In such a plan, forest exploitation is integrated into the process of colonization in a more rational fashion, as had been done in the Cariari colony near Guapiles (McKenzie 1972). Provisions are made so farmers realize benefits from the forest which will capitalize the farms and demonstrate the economic potential of forest management. Such a project requires good controls over forest cutting and lumber marketing, and neither the NFD nor the AD! have resources available for these activities.

The policy of the AD] is to precede the establishment of new colonies with a set of socio-economic studies which analyse the appropriateness of proposed farmers and use capacity of the farm land as a basis for recommending the most appropriate farmers and for purchasing the land. These studies later serve for making recommendations to farmers as to how to manage their farms. For example, a visit to the Neguev Colony in 1984 revealed that it had complete soil maps of the area and that the colony had been zoned into sectors corresponding to most appropriate crops. Training and extension efforts were directed toward the recommended activities for each zone.

Farmers are admitted to the colony on the basis of several criteria which seem to be fairly clearly directed toward the exclusion of "land speculators" in agrarian reform colonies. The requirements for colonists are

1. They must not possess other lands.
2. They must have a family.
3. They must show that agriculture is the basis for their livelihood.
4. They must demonstrate basic agricultural knowledge.
5. They must agree to work the farm themselves.
6. They must not have received (and sold) land from the AD! (or ITCO, its predecessor).

The completion of background studies by the AD] is an ideal not always achieved, as will be discussed in the case-study which follows.

No provision is made for the enforcement of land use recommendations. Farmers are left to accept or reject them on the basis of their own judgement, although it is assumed that most will follow the technical recommendations. In much of the tropical lowland colonization region discussed here, inappropriate land use does not present much erosion danger, since the land is relatively flat. Nevertheless, even in more difficult areas, erosion control is the province of the NFD and is not included in ADI work plans.

Within AD! colonies, forest management is controlled by the NFD in a fashion similar to that in areas which have no ADF colonists. Farmers are required to obtain permits for forest cutting from the NFD and are subject to all normal regulations. The ADF intervenes only to help the farmer establish that he is the legal owner of the land, which is a prerequisite for lumbering or land-clearing permits. In Neguev Colony, one agronomist is assigned the task of overseeing forestry questions, but he is strictly an advisor to the NFD inspector and makes recommendations as to appropriate action; he cannot issue permits. The one restriction the AD! places on forest harvesting is that all proceeds must be reinvested in the farm; prior to the recommendation of allowing a cutting permit, farmers must present an "investment plan" (plan de inversion) which details the use to which income will be put. Frequent purchases are fencing materials and fumigation equipment. Nevertheless, once the permit is authorized, the AD! recognizes that many farmers do not follow the investment plan.

NFD policy with regard to forest-cutting permits is to avoid exploitative or dangerous deforestation and to authorize cutting when no environmental or legal problems are present. In practice, this means that steep slopes and stream courses cannot be deforested. The NFD will also authorize selective cutting in forest areas on farms, while prohibiting complete deforestation. These restrictions are enforced indirectly; NFD permits are required for the transport of logs on major highways, without which they can be detained. Truckers prefer not to purchase logs without having this paperwork in order, so the NFD policy does in fact control commercial logging. Small-scale cutting for on-farm use is permitted with NED authorization, but in practice it is largely uncontrolled, and clearing is often carried out without permission when there is no intention of selling the wood.

Logistical and other problems often impede the complete implementation of the AD' management strategy, and these problems are described in the case-study that follows.


Case-Study: Batán Regional Office of the ADI

The ADI is the focus of much controversy and conflict. It has been accused of serving landed interests as a ready and well-paying buyer for unwanted farm lands (Salazar 1962; Hill 1964) on the one hand and, on the other, has been accused of fomenting forest destruction by legalizing a process of land clearance, pasture establishment, and land speculation by itinerant labourers (Costa Rica 1982). There is some truth in the accusations, since landowners insist on being well paid for expropriated land, and the agency is under political pressure from organized peasant groups to acquire more land. These accusations and pressures have been answered by policy changes in the ADI, and while they are not always directly related to deforestation and land use, they exercise a pervasive influence on agency decision-making and constitute part of the problem encountered in designing environmentally appropriate colonization strategies.

For administrative purposes, ADF management of colonization is decentralized in 20 regional centres managing some 300 individual colonization areas. These colonies comprise 40,326 farm families on an extension of 793,940 ha, approximately 15 per cent of the territorial extent of the country. Each regional office administers a set of colonies with varying conditions. One example of the complexity of the administrative problem can be seen by comparing the lists of colonies held by the main office and the regional office for Batán; both recognize the existence of 21 colonies, but there is a difference of approximately 15,000 ha in the estimates of area administered, and only a 50 per cent overlap in the colony names. Apparently, colonies are created, legalized, or administratively divided frequently, and this dynamism and the problems of communication are reflected in the differences between the two lists (the regional office technicians made a xerox of the author's copy of the central office list of colonies).

Table 5 presents an overall view of land use in Limón Province. Most of the land is protected, and a large part of the area in farms is incorporated into ADF programmes. It should be noted that Limón has experienced a great deal of economic growth in the past 10 years, so the 1973 census data are likely to be quite different from the current figures (the 1984 census was carried out in June 1984 and is still in the process of analysis). In any case, it is clear that AD! colonies form a significant portion of the farms and farming population of the province.

In his analysis of colonization in Latin America, Nelson (1977) discusses Batán Colony, but his brief summary hardly does justice to the situation. He concluded that the colony was a failure because he observed (1) problems of co-operative organization, (2) squatters within the colony, (3) a lack of interest on the part of settlers in agricultural activities, and (4) lower than expected yields. Viewed at the present time, his observations oversimplify a complex situation and misrepresent the problems of colonization in the region.

Table 5. Land use in Limón Province, Costa Rica

Type of administration Area Total Inhabs.
National parks      
Tortuguero 18,946  
Cahuita 1,068  
Chirripó 43,700  
Braulio Carrillo 31,401  
La Amistad 190,403  
Reserva Biologica    
Hitoy 9,044  
Forest reserves    
Zona Protectora Barbilla 12,830  
Matina 400  
Volcánica Central 72,895  
Indian reservations    
Tayni Estrella 13,616
Talamanca 62,129
Chirripó 82,105
Telire 9,187
Sibuju Norte 2,195
Cocles 5,538
Chase 190
Barbilla Dantes 2,450
Total 558,097

Agrarian reform: Number of beneficiaries and farm area (excludes Indian reservations)

  92,234   3,153
Total agricultural sector for Limón
  Ha in forest Ha. in farms Farms
59,033 285,316 9,316

Sources: Morales Díaz 1984; Costa Rica 1987, and table 4.

Table 6. Batán regional office: Colonies administered

No. Colony Locale Area Benefi
Parcels Formation
1.0 Colonia Batán Batán-Matina 10,572 750 799 1964
1.1 Parcelación Dirigida Batán-Matina 2,796 309 329 1964
1.2 Parcelación Asimilada Batán-Matina 6,985 450 479 1964
1.3 Sector Cooperativo Batán-Matina 791 120 - 1984
2.0 San Jose (don Storren) Estrada-Matina 30 28 29 1980
3.0 Maravilla Venecia-Matina 313 29 31 1978
4.0 La Flor (Coopeocho) Larga Distancia 324 21 22 1979
5.0 Peligrosa San Miguel 380 33 34 1977
6.0 Fuscaldo Sahara-Matina 217 16 16 1979
7.0 Wachope Sta. Rosa-Limón 1,000 38 45 1978
8.0 Las Nubes La Estrella-Limón 550 37 37 1975
9.0 Desarrollo Forestal Pacuarito-Siquirres 6,157 85 77 1977
10.0 Florida Siquirres 2,992 250 250 1978
11.0 Argentina (Made) Pocora-Guacimo 1,343 113 113 -
12.0 Tierra Grande Pocora-Guacimo 3,298 140 132 1980
13.0 Delicias Parsmina-Guacimo 314 49 49 1984
14.0 Dorayi Carmen-Siquirres 450 50 50 1980
15.0 Pais S.A. Sixaola-Talamanca 4,190 - - 1979
15.1 Margarita Margarita Sixaola 1,700 130 127 1979
15.2 Otros Sectores Varios Sixaola 2,410 170 - 1984
16.0 Julio César Calabria Cahuita-Talamanca 3,003 200 - 1984

Source: Castro, R. 1984. (No title). Batán regional office document.

The colony of Batán was created from an abandoned banana plantation. It is one (or four, depending on whether the administrative list of the main office or the regional office is used) of 21 colonies administered by the Batán ADI office. While it is the largest of the colonies, it represents only part of the colonized area of the region. The four divisions recognized by the regional office in 1984 are the original colony of 10,500 ha; an additional 2,700 ha of parcels established by the ADI; another 7,000 ha of parcels assimilated into the colony; and 800 ha of banana cooperatives (see table 6).

Steps have been taken to incorporate new squatters into the colony, evidenced by the near doubling for the size of the colony over a period of approximately 10 years. The addition of new farmers to the colony (there are now 1,500, as opposed to 600 proposed at the time of Nelson's study) seems to indicate that the problems of low crop yields have not limited growth. A national support programme for rice production has been very well received by farmers of the region, who are now producing their full quota of rice. The banana co-operatives have been so successful that an ADI official estimated the members' individual incomes to have been in excess of us$20,000 for some years, and manual labour is now carried out by contracted, non-member labourers. ADI officials see their main problems as the excessive demand for land by peasants, the agency's financial limitations, which restrict their level of activity, and the creation of a new elite in the area composed of members of the banana co-operatives.

With hindsight, it is clear that Nelson drew erroneous conclusions and made inaccurate predictions regarding the colony. But it is likely that the discrepancies between Nelson's predictions and the actual state of Batán Colony are a result of changing conditions and policy corrections made as the colony developed.

The Neguev and La Argentina Colonies

The Neguev and La Argentina (also called Made) colonies were established in forest areas and comprise 5,340 and 1,300 ha respectively. Both colonies are at approximately 100 m above sea level, with the majority of La Argentina above this altitude, and the majority of Neguev below it. These colonies are administered by the Pocora regional office of the ADI, which, in 1984, was incorporated into the Batán office.

Neguev Colony has a favourable financial situation due to the initiation of an AID funded programme to reinforce land titling and colonization. Neguev Colony has a staff of five technicians and a fleet of new jeeps to administer the 5,340 ha of the project, while the Batán regional office has a staff of six, one jeep (which must be push-started), and one motorcycle to administer a much larger area. Neguev, then, does not suffer as acutely the financial limitations which affect Batán.

La Argentina and Neguev share similar environmental problems and a similar history. The greater part of the land in both colonies is unsuitable for most kinds of agriculture. The soils are acid clay, which are generally thought to be suitable only for pasture. Small sections, especially alluvial soil areas, have better agricultural potential, but these lands do not constitute more than 20 per cent of the total land area. Both colonies were formed on the basis of land invasions by organized peasant groups and were forced on the ADI without allowing for a complete background analysis.

A number of farmers were interviewed in each of the colonies for their views on the problems of establishing their farms. Several generalizations can be made with regard to the farmers interviewed. First, many are recent immigrants from areas with different ecological conditions, such as the much drier Puriscal area, or from Turrialba, a higher area with fewer months of rainfall and better soils. The initial ADI report on the population found 115 farmers on the land, and only 56 from nearby areas (ITCO 1980). These farmers do not have special insights into the problems of managing their new lands, and generally admitted to being at a loss as to how best to use them. Sowing of pasture was the one universal solution- to their problems, since most affirmed that soils were too poor to support any other crops. Nevertheless, farmers did not seem to have a realistic view of their income possibilities from animal production. Since the majority of the farms are smaller than 20 ha, the only alternative for deriving a viable income from animal production would be through dairy production. Farmers interviewed had made no special provisions to orient their work toward dairying.

Tree farming is not considered a viable land use alternative by the colonists. For a farmer, income from trees is usually a one-time affair, by which he sells the rights to trees on his land, and the lumber contractor takes charge of cutting. The returns to the farmer for this sort of extraction are low but acceptable because they require no input from the farmer. In La Argentina a small sawmill was established, but prices for processing logs were so high that farmers only considered using the mill's services for home construction, as an alternative to buying wood. It seems clear that the lack of organization of the lumber industry in the area is a major disincentive to further forestry activities. Farmers do not have exceptionally profitable experiences in wood processing, and, apparently as a result, it never occurs to them to enter the business again.

Both Neguev and La Argentina were private farms prior to their invasions. Both had significant forest areas, but in the case of Neguev, the owner had sown several hectares of laurel and laurel muneco in the central area of the farm. The plantations seemed to have suffered high mortality, and only patches remain. The remaining trees are at least five years old (the colony was established five years ago, and one farmer's wife declared there had been no planting in the interim) and have reached a height of nearly 10 metres. There was no evidence of any special efforts taken with regard to the plantations. Pastures had been planted among the trees, but the two local ADI employees interviewed were unaware of the plantations until they were pointed out to them.

It is significant that forestry activities were not contemplated in the ADI management plan for farms in the area. "Protection zones" were established in swampy and uncultivable areas, but no plans for reforestation were suggested.

Both Neguev and La Argentina had been major centres of peasant political activities. When La Argentina was first invaded, peasants organized in rejecting ADI support, and the farm was abandoned by the ADI, leaving it in the hands of the peasant group. One reason that the Pocora office of the ADI is now located in Batán is that it had been located on a farm adjacent to La Argentina and had to be abandoned due to the political opposition. The office facilities have now deteriorated to the point of being unserviceable. Apparently the more inaccessible parts of the farm had been used for weapons training by militant groups at one time, but after police action this activity ended. The most significant result of the political activity in La Argentina was that the recommendations of the socio-economic evaluations of potential settlers could never be implemented. Of the 115 families identified in the ADI Settler Selection Study, only 89 were recommended as settlers. The remaining 26 were excluded for a variety of reasons, including possession of other lands, previous land adjudications to the farmer by the ADI indications that the farm would not be a major source of income, or the "colonist" being a single, legal minor (possibly family to local farmers or other settlers in La Argentina). These recommendations were never carried out, and the farm was never formally adjudicated, so that in June of 1984 there was no legal title for any of the existing parcels, and presumably the original 115 colonists had disposed of the land as they pleased. Many land transactions had taken place since the original study on the basis of "letters of sale," but the ADI land adjudicator insisted that these papers had no legal merit. Survey teams for the ADI were in the process of making a new socioeconomic study and remeasuring parcels so titles could be formalized.

While the case of La Argentina is exceptional in the militance of its occupiers, in many senses it represents the norm in land colonization. A farm is invaded by peasants who have identified it as abandoned (or minimally managed); the organized peasant group succeeds in bringing political pressure to bear on the ADI SO they cannot carry out their preliminary evaluations or make decisions on the basis of information collected. The ADI "inherits" the purchase of the farm and has no option to refuse conditions suggested by the landowner or those imposed by the invading group.

The cases of La Argentina and Neguev illustrate the problems of land acquisition by the ADI Land of questionable value is acquired and distributed among peasants with no basis in technical criteria. The result is the establishment of colonies on poor farm land, with farms too small to offer reasonable incomes given the poor land quality. Even the farmers recognize the limitations of their land and have little hope of becoming selfsufficient, much less well-off. From their perspective the land is a good investment ADI officials estimate that the majority of the original families have changed since the first invasion of 1979, and the current occupants have paid for the land), since in all likelihood it will appreciate and generate some income in the meantime. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these farms will contribute to a vigorous development of agriculture without the development of improved land utilization strategies.

Economic and Political Aspects of Tropical Land Colonization in Costa Rica

No discussion of land colonization in Costa Rica can be complete without at least mentioning the economic and political context of land invasions. These are delicate and explosive issues which have come to be incorporated into the deforestation process and which influence the process of land development and land use even more than technical considerations. During the week of 16 July 1984, the regional office of the ADI in Batán was invaded twice by militant squatters, and on one occasion the office personnel were held hostage for a period of 20 hours in an effort to reinforce squatter demands. The background to this invasion is presented here because it helps illustrate the problems faced by the ADI

As mentioned, one of the major concerns of the ADI in adjudicating farm land is to avoid providing land to peasant speculators who have no intention of farming. In some notorious cases, farms have been invaded by peasants and adjudicated by the ADI only to have the farm land resold to the original owner within a period of a few years. More common is the rapid turnover of peasants in newly established colonies, in which original invaders quickly "sell" their land to other peasants. While obviously there are conditions under which farmers may want or need to sell recently acquired land, ADI officials identify certain individuals as "professionals" who earn a living by partcipating in invasions and selling adjudicated lands. Condition six of the ADI settler evaluation criteria mentioned above is included to exclude these professionals from new colonies. This issue is prominent in the following discussion.

The immediate motivation for the take-over of the ADI offices in Batán was a demand for expropriation of a farm called La Margarita. La Margarita is a cacao farm located on the railway between Batán and Limón. Its area is 360 ha and its owner, the Costa Rica Cocoa Company, was reported to be asking 40 million colones (approximately us$1 million) for the farm. A group of 50 squatters invaded the farm but were removed by the local police, and some were taken to court. Nevertheless, the squatters invaded again, since according to the squatters the farm had been abandoned prior to their invasion. This may be true, since in the past few years the presence of Monilia fungus greatly reduced cacao production in the area, and many cacao plantations ceased to be worked. In the meantime, CATIE technicians working at "La Lola" experiment station near Batán discovered methods for controlling Monilia which were economically feasible. Where a few years ago cacao was being abandoned or destroyed, plantations are now being renewed or newly planted. The ADI thus found itself in the position of buying a fairly small farm, which the owners probably wanted to retain, at a price which would be quite high for abandoned land.

An added dilemma for the ADI is the make-up of the new colonists. Most were thought to be professional land occupiers. This impression gains some support from the location of the farm on the railway, where lands are especially valuable and appreciate rapidly. In a chance interview with a squatter from a politically associated invasion (two invasion groups had joined forces to pressure for the adjudication of "their" lands and had jointly invaded the ADI offices the week of 16 July), the squatter stated that 80 per cent of the invaders of La Margarita were "comerciarites" (merchants).

Political pressure is increased in these invasions by the participation of leftist political parties. In the selection study for La Argentina (ITCO 1980), it was recognized that the Popular Vanguard Party (PVP) provided advice and support for the invading group. The PVP is a coalition of leftist parties which have traditionally been involved with political activity in labour unions of the banana areas. Many invasions are organized through banana workers unions, and the PVP has come to be present in other invasions as an organizational or legal advisor. In the case of La Margarita, a second gathering at the ADI office in Batán two days after the take-over ADI officials took the precaution of not allowing more than one of the demonstrators in the office at one time) was joined by directors of peasant unions from all over Limón Province.

The take-over of the ADI office took place during a week marked by nation-wide labour problems. Newspapers were full of articles discussing the coalition of political interests which were attempting to manipulate these labour problems for their own ends. After leaving the ADI offices following the second incident, organizers of the group openly discussed the possibility of co-ordinating their demands with those of the workers in other parts of the country to deal a "massive blow" (golpe masivo) to the government.

While the take-over of the ADI offices was an exceptional occurrence, the invasion of lands has not been. In a progress report from 15 June 1984, the Batán regional office reported that there had been 30 invasions in the past two years. Twenty of these were new invasions and 10 were continuing cases which had not been formally adjudicated for a variety of reasons.

The problems associated with the La Margarita farm illustrate the problems of the ADI in managing colonization on a technical basis. The interests of landless farmers are tied to political and commercial interests which are contrary to ADI policies. Pressure groups try to force the ADI into making decisions on a political basis in order to avoid the application of technical criteria which may recommend the refusal of an adjudication request. At the same time, the ADI finds itself subject to pressure from the government to make decisions which are based more on the current political conditions in the country than on the technical merits of a colonization programme.


Several general conclusions emerge from this analysis of colonization in tropical forest areas:

1. National agencies faced with colonization questions do not have technical information, such as studies of land use potential, available to them which could guide them in making more efficient use of humid tropical lands.

2. There is a shortage of production recommendations which are feasible for small farmers. Productive activities which would be especially appropriate for the humid areas, typically forestry, do not have a structure of financial and technical support which would encourage farmers to enter into innovative production strategies.

3. In the cases where this information is available, there is a lack of incentive for farmers to use it.

4. Financial support is generally lacking for the implementation of activities which may help to ameliorate environmental problems.

5. There is no national environmental conscience capable of resisting local pressures for forest destruction.

6. The ADI is being forced into the position of regularizing ex post facto the illegal seizure of lands by both poor peasants and "professional squatters" and land speculators.

Agrarian Reform Problems in Tropical Colonization

The ADI is constantly faced with problems which involve forestry questions, but they have not been able to implement effective programmes which address these problems. ADI programmes do not generally have a forestry component built into them, and, in fact, forestry and environmental problems are generally ignored for want of appropriate planning and implementation mechanisms. As one clear example, the production of laurel (Cordia alliodora) in agro-forestry combinations has been an important source of income for farmers in Limón. in recent years where Monilia has reduced cacao income; combined with cacao or pastures, laurel provides a method of making multiple use of lands with appropriate local species and also helps to stabilize land and reduce problems of nutrient leaching and erosion (Rosero and Gewald 1979). Nevertheless, there is no clearly defined laurel component in either pasture or cacao production programmes in Neguev, and technicians were not even sensitized enough to the potential of the species to realize that the existing plantations could provide experimental data which might support further use of laurel.

Still on Neguev Colony, notably absent were plans for financing forestry activities of farmers. The ADI in fact had unconsciously adopted a purely exploitive view of forest resources. In an area with soil problems as serious as those of Neguev, forestry may well be one of the better economic alternatives for land use. In any case, farms are clearly lacking in income sources, and more attention could be paid to the enriching of forest, which, by law, must remain on the farm.

A major problem in the control of the colonization of tropical lands is the ADI's general reactive strategy. It seems that all colonization areas are selected by the invading peasants rather than the colonization agency. Once installed, the removal of the peasants is more costly (both politically and financially) than a more forward looking strategy which provides colonization areas which have been selected on the basis of technical evaluations. It is quite likely that this problem is one of financing, in which the ADI already has its budget committed to prior purchases and has no remaining funds to direct to further purchases, except where they are forced to by unavoidable political pressures. In any case, it is likely that in environmental and financial terms, it would be less costly to try to direct colonization to more appropriate areas, and that immediate investments in the ADI would be beneficial over the longer term.

Needs for Tropical Forestry Management

Within the NFD, the forestry reserve and protection zone programmes need to be strengthened. Increased staffing of forest guards has been demonstrated by the NPS to be effective, and presumably it would have the same effect in NFD areas.

The NFD needs to increase its capacity dramatically to produce management plans for protected areas. The most detailed plans now available generally come from student theses, but are sporadic in their development and slow in being produced. Either NED planning capacity must be increased or CATIE activities must be reoriented to provide a more complete coverage of forest areas with management plans.

Another need is to strengthen extension-type activities through the provision of technical support and credit, especially in the management of natural on-farm forests. The development of enrichment programmes or management and exploitation plans would be a positive step in generating farmer interest in forestry.

Necessary Investigations

In all cases of humid forest land occupation, there seems to be a clear lack of forestry implementation plans. Even in areas where forestry is obviously necessary, technicians are not making recommendations as to how to increase productivity of natural forest or how to best manage small-scale forestry or agro-forestry activities. Investigation must be implemented to provide answers to technical questions, and more effort must be directed toward communicating available information and the adaptation of forestry technologies to existing socio-economic conditions so they can readily be used by farmers.

It would be extremely useful to undertake more agro-forestry experiments in areas where they may be useful to farmers. The experiments can serve as demonstration plots, and a careful collection of local perceptions of the experiments can provide insights into technical improvements which will make adoption more likely.

More attention must be paid to soils. Although the problems of soils in high rainfall areas are generally known, there is insufficient information on alternative land uses or strategies for ameliorating known problems. Special attention must be paid not only to the discovery of alternative land uses, but to management strategies which generate income on small farms. Eighty-five per cent of all farms in Costa Rica are smaller than 50 ha, many of which are in areas of poor soils affected by high rainfall. Techniques for environmental management on these farms have a great potential impact in terms of both numbers of farms affected and on the larger environment.


Although Panama is one of the most developed countries of Central America, it faces grave ecological threats to its economic base. It has avoided the more typical "banana republic" dependency on agricultural exports through the income and employment generated by the canal and through an economic diversification into manufacturing and banking activities. This development unfortunately has been accompanied by the underdevelopment of the agricultural sector, in which destructive, land extensive agricultural techniques are still used by the majority of Panamanian farmers.

Panama is at the point of being overtaken by the underdevelopment of its agriculture. Historically, the existence of employment alternatives reduced the pressure on Panamanian agricultural lands, so the use of land extensive production techniques presented no problems. In fact, they may have been seen as positive in some sectors since they allowed for a massive conversion of "unproductive" forest into agricultural, and more specifically, ranching activities. Nevertheless, as the agricultural population has increased, these extensive techniques have created land shortage and land use conflict. The agricultural use of the Panama Canal watershed threatens not only the use of the canal but the hydroelectric capacity to supply major cities (Wadsworth 1982). Darién Province contains the largest remaining forest area in Panama and provides a large proportion of national wood production as well as new agricultural lands. As land in other areas of the country has been occupied, Panamanians look more to Darién for their agricultural future.

Map 4. Panama: provinces, physical features, and relief.

Unfortunately, the colonization of Panama's Darién contains all the elements of an ecological disaster. Deficient soils, uncontrolled land use, extensive logging, the potential for the introduction of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia through a deforested Darién, and a deficient research base - these factors combine with an administrative chaos which does not permit the enforcement of existing laws or the execution of present mandates to create an ecologically dangerous situation.

Several attempts have been made to control land colonization, but none has been effectively implemented. Extensive forms of land use in other parts of Panama create a large migrant population hungry for new lands and which has flooded into Darién with the completion of new access roads. An apparent lack of awareness or concern with environmental problems at an official level has led to the exaggeration of political and economic forces which impede appropriate land use.

On the positive side, at a lower administrative level there are technicians and institutions with promising ideas. A basic framework for investigation is now in place (although it lacks co-ordination and financing), and local level government technical employees understand the problems they face and their alternatives.

Colonization and Agriculture in Panama

The relative strength of the non-agricultural sector in Panama's economy has been accompanied by an indifference to policies which could serve to further agricultural development. Agriculture has come to be dominated by large and relatively unproductive enterprises to the extent that Panama must import food. Small farmers (who are traditionally producers of basic grains) have been squeezed out of older agricultural areas and are being forced to relocate on new lands.

Table 7. Gross Domestic Product, Panama, 1982

Activity % GDP
Agriculture 8.8
Mining 0.2
Manufacturing 9.3
Construction 8.9
Electricity, gas, water 3.6
Transportation and communication 11.6
Trade and finance 15.8
Public administration and defence -
Other 41.8
Total 99.9

Source: Kurian 1987.

Unlike other countries of Central America, Panama derives relatively little from agriculture nationally and internationally. Manufacturing, commerce, finance, and of course the Panama Canal provide a strong non-agricultural base for the Panamanian economy (table 7). While Panama is a net exporter of agricultural products, basic foods must be imported (table 8). Land use in Panama has been concentrated in a few areas: the major population and manufacturing centres are found near the canal, and agricultural activity has been concentrated in two fairly restricted areas. The provinces of Los Santos and Herrera on the Azuero Peninsula have traditionally been the heartland of Panamanian small-farm agriculture and areas of small-farm economies bordered by cattle haciendas in the neighbouring provinces of Veraguas and Coclé (Jaen Suarez 1978), while the more humid provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro have been utilized for large-scale banana production for export.

The recent process of agricultural "development" in Panama has been characterized by the formation of large cattle ranching operations and the displacement of small farmers (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982). While there is some question as to the date when land concentration began in Azuero, the process has become more accentuated in recent years. Even the relatively recently colonized lands of Tonosi have been quickly transformed from a lush tropical forest area, containing some of the most fertile lands of Panama, into a pasture land (Heckadon Moreno 1983).

One of the most destructive outcomes of the land concentration process in Azuero has been the formation of an unstable population of landless farmers. These farmers have been forced to search for new lands in the highlands of Veraguas, the provinces of Colón, Coclé, and Panama, and, since the opening of the Inter-American Highway past Chepo, the province of Darién. Part of the technological tool kit of these farmers is the ability to rapidly deforest land and sow it to pasture. Their destructive slash-and-burn agricultural techniques have been rewarded in the past by cattle ranchers willing to buy infertile pasture land. As an unfortunate side-effect of this situation, the farmers have not developed agricultural techniques for soil conservation nor improved management techniques for humid conditions, nor have they experimented with new crops which might serve to extend the productive life of recently deforested lands. Independent studies of deforestation problems (e.g. Joly 1982; Heckadon Moreno 1981b) have confirmed the role of these farmers in the creation of land use problems.

Table 8. Agricultural trade, Panama, 1984

  Value ($) % Total
Imports (000,000) imports
Agriculture, fish, and forestry total 138.13 100
Wheat 11.39 8.25
Animal products 14.938* 10.81
Maize 3.970 2.87
Beans 4.5 3.26
Onions 1.5 1.09
Potatoes 0.25 0.18
Subtotal 36.548 26.46
Exports Value ($) % Total
  (000,000) exports
Total 255.390 100
Bananas 72.569* 28.4
Fish (inc. shrimp) 74.650 29.21
Sugar 33.302 13.03
Animal products 18.219* 7.13
Rice 1.649 0.65
Subtotal 200.389 78.41

Source: FAO 1984. *Information for 1983.

As part of a campaign to strengthen agriculture, the Agrarian Reform Agency has made efforts to transform the structure of production in the countryside. The initial focus of activities was the formation of communally owned agricultural enterprises, although more recently the communal enterprises have been de-emphasized. In practice, the reform activities have seemingly followed a line of least resistance, with outright expropriations of farms making up a relatively small proportion of farms affected, and the majority of lands have come from tax payment expropriations (see table 9) or from the relatively unpopulated Darién. Between March 1973 and August 1975, 80 per cent of all land acquired was in Darién, including 88,000 ha associated with the Bayano Reservoir Project. Of 350,000 ha of land acquired before 1972, less than one-third is class IV or better, which suggests that these were lands which were not strongly contested (Shearer and Tejada Mora 1980).

Table 9. Sources of land for agrarian reform before 1972

Source % Total
Expropriation for taxes 59
Expropriation 21
Purchase 14
Donation 5
Other 1

Source Shearer and Tejada 1980

The most recent colonization of Darién is in fact a "recolonization." The 1,291 farms reported in the 1970 census represent a decrease from the 2,044 reported in 1960. The decline in farms was accompanied by a decrease in the total area in farms from 35,754 ha to 27,544 ha (Panama-OEA 1978). Forestry and plantain production were major income generators in previous years, and the current status of the area as a whole has been described as one of "decadence" rather than "underdevelopment." Nevertheless, it is clear that many areas are being opened up for colonization for the first time. The previous development of Darién had been completely based on water transport, with most of the major settlements located around the Gulf of San Miguel or on major waterways. One of the major problems foreseen in the Integrated Development Project for Darién (Panama-OEA 1978) was the dislocation of population in urban centres which declined in importance as a result of the decreased importance of water transport. Another problem of the more recent development is that the newly colonized lands are less appropriate for agriculture than those already cultivated, so there is more danger of the creation of a deforestation cycle motivated by soil exhaustion and of the successive deforestation of new lands.

The Darién "gap" highway is the last link in the all-weather road connecting North and South America. While as of 1984 this road was still not complete, its progress has opened up major new expanses of land by providing improved road transport to and from the capital. Previous to the construction of the road, all communication between the population centres of Darién and Panama was by boat or plane. Agricultural marketing was virtually impossible. The opening of the new portions of the road has provided an opportunity for development of the area, which, however, is also accompanied by serious problems.

While the present study focuses on Darién, as the largest and longest standing colonization area in Panama, it should be noted that there are other identifiable colonization fronts throughout the country. Although smaller, these fronts may be more destructive both economically and ecologically. A major concern, as mentioned above, is the problem of the Panama Canal watershed. The political fanfare which accompanied the signing of the Panama Canal treaties made it difficult for both American and Panamanian control of land clearance in the watershed, since any attempt to eliminate farmers from the area dredges up questions of nationalism as well as the domestic political problems of removing poor farmers from their source of livelihood.

Over the not-so-long term, the deforestation of the canal watershed will present serious problems for Panama. The most obvious problem is the functioning of the canal, which requires the discharge of large amounts of water as the locks are filled and emptied with the passage of ships. Lake Gatún serves as the reservoir for water to be used in the locks and is, at the same time, the waterway crossed by the ships between the sets of locks. The waterway can be kept open simply by dredging a canal through the silt buildup in the lake, but dredging cannot make much impact on the total capacity of the reservoir. In recent years, low rainfall and low rates of recharge in the reservoir have caused a limitation in the use of the canal due to insufficient water. These problems will necessarily become more serious as farming increases in the watershed.

Lake Gatún also serves as a hydroelectric reservoir for both the canal operations and the cities outside the immediate canal zone. As the reservoir capacity decreases, Panama will increasingly be forced to decide between electrical generation and the operation of the canal during years of low rainfall.

Two other areas of forest clearing and land settlement can be identified. The first is in the Caribbean lowlands of Colon and Bocas del Toro provinces. The Caribbean fringe of Panama has long been bypassed for agricultural settlement because of extreme humidity and problems of transportation, but with increasing population pressure, the land has become more attractive in spite of these limitations. The settlement of the Caribbean coast is principally in the areas west of the canal, for the simple reason that to the east is the comarca of San Blas, homeland of the Kuna Indians. The Kuna have been very successful in defending their territorial claims against non-Indians and have managed to exclude settlers for the most part. For their own purposes, the Kuna are principally fishermen and small-scale swidden agriculturalists/forest farmers; combined with their relatively low population density, there is little agricultural land clearance in the area.

The second new area of land clearance and settlement is along the Chiriqui-Bocas del Toro highway. In 1984-1985 an asphalt highway was completed between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts near the Costa Rican border. Prior to that time, the only access to Bocas del Toro was by air or by sea from Panama, although there was a road connecting it to Costa Rica through Changuinola. Without road access, the lands of the upper Caribbean slope had been used only by Indian groups (the coastal lowlands are used for banana and cacao production), but the opening of the road has brought a flood of colonists to a previously untouched forest area.

Table 10. Land use potential in Darién

Land use Area (000 ha) % Darién
Intensive agriculture 106.70 6.4
Pasture, permanent crops, and    
forestry 441.90 26.3
Forestry only 575.80 34.3
Protection and reserves 512.80 30.5
Rivers 43.10 2.5
Total 1,680.30 100.0

Source: Panama-OEA 1978.

General Description of Darién Province

The province of Darién covers 1,680,300 ha, making up 22.2 per cent of the total territory of Panama. The major life zone for the area is tropical wet forest (Holdridge 1979). Rainfall averages between 1,400 and 2,500 mm annually, and a three month dry season extends from January to March (Panama-OEA 1978). The driest areas of Darién are the coastal areas around the Gulf of San Miguel and the low-lying valleys of the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers. Recent data indicate that the strip of tropical dry forest on the coast near Sambu extends as far as La Palma, and a large area should be considered tropical dry forest transition to humid forest. Only 6 per cent of the land was found to be suitable for intensive agriculture (see table 10), while the majority of all land is unsuitable for any non-forestry activity. In 1971 and 1972, 5 million board feet of lumber were extracted annually, constituting 21 and 26 per cent of the national lumber production in the respective years. RENARE officials now report that Darién's contribution to total national lumber production may be as high as 80 per cent.

Ethnic Groups in Darién. The occupants of Darién can be divided into four general ethnic groups: Dariénitas, colombianos, indígenas, and colonos. Dariénitas are nonIndian people born in Darién. Colombianos are non-nationalized Colombian blacks. Indígenas are Indians of either Kuna or Embera descent, and colonos are the immigrants from the provinces of Los Santos, Herrera, Chiriquí, etc. (also known as interioranos), who come in search of new agricultural lands (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982). In 1972 the Dariénitas were the largest population group (see table 11), but recent migrations of colonos are likely to have made migrants the major population group.

The economic activities of the indígenas and of many of the colombianos and Dariénitas are quite similar. Swidden agriculture is practiced on a very small scale in forest clearings. An important part of the diet and income comes from hunting and fishing, and no cattle are kept. Settlements border water courses.

Another production pattern is commercial plantain production. In Darién National Park, plantations border rivers and may extend as much as one kilometre from the bank. These are maintained by indígenas, but the production of plantain is generalized in Daríen.

Table 11. Ethnic groups in Darién, 1972

Ethnic group % Darién population
Dariénitas 52.00
Indígenas 24.00
Colombianos 17.50
Colonos 6.50
Total 100.00

Source: Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982.

Colombianos are characterized by people of Darién as loggers. Their major economic activity is tree cutting, either as day labourers, small-scale land-clearing contractors, or as regular employees of lumbering concessions.

The practice of combined farming and ranching is associated with the colonos, the recent migrants from other parts of Panama. The activities of these farmers have been discussed extensively in other publications (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982; Heckadon Moreno 1981), and they most significantly include the use of slash-and-burn agriculture as a process for clearing land for pastures. While the most notorious source of migrants is Los Santos, the first colonos in Darién were chiricanos (from Chiriqui Province), as are many of the more recent colonists.

The colonos have also become associated with commerce. They run stores and restaurants and act as middlemen in the commercialization of agricultural products and lumber.

The Process of Deforestation in Darién. The two major motives for deforestation in Darién are logging and farming.

Large-scale lumbering is carried out within a framework of concessions granted by RENARE, which authorizes the exploitation of 5,000 ha areas for a period of two years. Concessions are now quite distant from the highway, in areas which are thought to be generally uninhabited.

During a visit to Darién in July of 1984, a constant movement of lumber out of Darién was noted on the highway, mostly in the form of whole tree trunks. A visual inspection of passing trucks and lumber patios found 100 per cent of the lumber to be cedro espinoso (Bombacopsis quinatum) trunks of diameters in excess of 0.7 m and up to 2.0 m. No explanation was encountered for the predominance of Bombacopsis observed.

Small-scale logging is carried out by individual farmers. A few trees are felled on the farm and cut into tablones measuring from 12 x 12 cm to 40 x 40 cm and 3 to 6 m long. These tablones are dragged to the roadside to be sold to middlemen. A few mahogany tablones were seen.

Intermediate-scale logging is carried out on farms distant from the highway, where transport is extremely difficult. Log extraction in this case is carried out by small operators who use their own agricultural tractors to bring wood to the roadside. The cost of transport in this case is so high that it is only profitable for tractor owners to operate in this fashion.

Small- and intermediate-scale lumbering is an integral part of the colonization process. Lumber is extracted in the process of clearing the farm and to generate income. Most colonists seem to be poor, so short-term income and capitalization needs can only be financed through wood sales.

Problems of Colonists in Darién. A series of open-ended interviews were carried out with colonists of Darién to determine their perceptions of the problems and possibilities of agriculture in Darién.

A major problem perceived by colonists is their lack of knowledge of viable farming alternatives to apply in the area. For most farmers, cattle-raising has been an important source of income in other areas, but in Darién the programme for control of hoof-andmouth disease restricts marketing possibilities. * Nevertheless, all farms include an extension of pasture far in excess of their current needs. Farmers are clearly relying on their traditional agriculture strategies, even though they are inappropriate to the current situation, because they have not discovered more promising alternatives.

The quality of the soil is a major limiting factor in Darién agriculture. Some farmers report that good yields can only be expected for one or possibly two years. Such a rate of exhaustion would lead to an accelerated rate of conversion of farm land to pasture and forest to farm land.

Potable water presents a major problem in Darién. In the eastern part of Darién, water has a high mineral content. In the western part along the highway, water shortage is a limiting factor. While the normal dry season in Darién lasts three months, in 1981-1982 it extended to nearly seven months, and the colonists blocked the main highway to pressure the national guard to bring in drinking water, a practice which has been continued every year (Waterman 1984). Some areas, such as the higher parts of Nicanor, experience permanent water problems, and farmers along the highway plan to rely on piped public water sources. An especially doubtful element in their expectations is that the Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve will be the source of this water; the current deforestation of the reserve is not presently being controlled, which is having obvious effects on this crucial water supply. Significantly, one farm visit carried out in Darién was in the company of the director of the Agrarian Reform office and the judge of La Palma; the purpose of the visit was to view the arbitration in a farm boundary dispute which centred around access to a dryseason water source.

Finally, agricultural marketing for all products remains a problem and a disincentive for increased production. Local problems of transporting products to the main road, inadequate storage, and monopsonistic middlemen are major problems of the marketing system cited by farmers.


Institutional Aspects of Colonization in Darién

Integrated Development Plans for Colonization

The land occupation following the opening of the Inter-American Highway into Darién was accompanied by the development of technical and organization plans for the amelioration of land use problems in the newly colonized areas. These arrangements have had very little effect on the process of colonization to date.

The most significant attempt at planning for the colonization of Darién was the integrated development plan produced through the OAS (Panama-OEA 1978). This study found only 6 per cent of the land in Darién to be suitable for intensive agriculture and another 26 per cent which could be used under careful management (table 10). A plan was outlined for settling farmers on the most appropriate lands according to categories of potential land use. The Ministry of Planning and Political Economy is now in charge of executing this plan. Nevertheless, a trip to the offices of the ministry and repeated phone calls only succeeded in identifying one individual who could give me information regarding the execution of the plan; on the one occasion this individual could be located in his office, he was too busy to allow an interview. No evidence or knowledge of the execution of this plan was found either in the field or in other government agencies.

The creation of a department of colonization in RENARE was recommended in the FAO'S report on forestry development in Darién (FAO 1980). The objective of this department was to co-ordinate colonization activities of the different institutions which had an impact on the colonization of forest lands. The department was in fact created (named Oficina de Ordenación Territorial del Darién), and two individuals were named to head the office in Darién. Nevertheless, an interview in July 1984 revealed the subdirector of RENARE had only a vague knowledge of the department and was not aware that it had been attached to RENARE. No formal reports could be located. The former assistant director for the office in Darién (no longer a RENARE employee) reported that the department existed for less than two years but that it became the focus of jurisdictional disputes between RENARE and Agrarian Reform; its activities were weakened and finally the department disappeared.

It is worth noting that the basis for all planning of colonization in Darién has been the special status of the strip of land bordering the highway. The width of this strip has varied between 2.5 and 8 km, but the process of colonization was to be controlled through the selective granting of access to these lands. The width now stands at 8 km, under the Agrarian Reform Agency's jurisdiction.

Currently, the two government agencies most directly related to colonization in Darién are RENARE and the Agrarian Reform Agency, both of which are dependencies of the Ministry of Agricultural Development (MIDA). RENARE is responsible for all forest resources, including granting of logging permits, protection of forest reserves and parks, forestry extension, watershed management, and research. Agrarian Reform is concerned with land titling and adjudication.

RENARE. RENARE'S involvement with colonization is indirect, in that its main concern is the control of forest exploitation. RENARE officials issue permits for cutting trees on a small scale to farmers in the area, who can cut three trees per month on their own property by paying us$4.00 for a permit from RENARE and us$3.00 to the local civic government. A nursery at Villa Darién was established to produce 10,000 plants per year. The nursery produces fruit-trees principally, along with forest species such as mahogany, cedar, leucaena, and "oak" (Tabebuia spp.), which it sells for us$0.25 each. Sales are reported on a small scale; tree purchases seemed to be destined to the establishment of home gardens.

A number of demonstration efforts are carried out in Darién. In several schools "taungya" (forestry plantations cultivated in agricultural plots) demonstrations were established. In a public school of Metetí, an agronomy teacher manages a plantation of teak interplanted with pineapple. The growth of the teak was uneven, but 50 per cent of the trees in a 20 m x 20 m plot reached 3 m in one year. Other agronomic activities include the planting of fruit-trees such as peach palm (Guilielma gassipaes), guanábana (Annona muricata), and mango (Mangifera indica). These demonstrations serve the dual purpose of instructing students and informing their parents about alternative production strategies. Heads of families were intrigued with the performance of the teak but were concerned with the problem of short-term cash flow before long-term investments such as lumber production.

RENARE also established a demonstration plot for forestry species at the edge of the highway near Villa Darién with eight species from the genera Cedrela, Swietenia, Bombacopsis, Tabebuia, Leucaena, and Guilielma. Although farmers know and value naturally occurring species of the region, they were unaware of the possibility of replanting them on their farms. RENARE'S forestry plot was intended to address this problem.

The other facet of RENARE activities in Darién is the issuance of forest concessions to logging companies. It is generally believed that these concessions give rise to abuses, through bribery, disorganization, and RENARE'S inability to control the activity with its limited staff (the head of RENARE'S forestry department reports that the most optimistic estimate of their coverage of forested areas is 1 forest guard for each 50,000 ha). RENARE and MIDA are involved in a clear conflict of interest in the issuance of permits, since concession payments are an important part of their operational funds. Information about concessions is freely available, and there are fairly current maps with locations and extensions. One problem noted with the system of granting concessions pointed out by the RENARE regional director is the vagueness of the environmental obligations, which are no more specific than to require that the companies "take necessary measures" to avoid environmental problems. It was also pointed out that the two-year time period of the concession was too short to permit or motivate logging companies to reforest.

What may be the most destructive problem associated with concessions is the lack of clear territorial definitions in the activities of the Agrarian Reform Agency. At present there is no map which differentiates state land (over which RENARE would have authority to grant concessions) and land adjudicated by colonists. Problems have arisen where logging companies and farmers think they have rights to the same lands, and in several cases farmers have blockaded roads until the lumber company has paid them for extracting lumber from "their" land ( Waterman 1984). In order to avoid unforeseen payments to farmers, lumber companies now find it more attractive to work in the Indian reservations of the area, where landownership is more clearly defined; companies pay us$.01 per board foot to Indians for wood extracted from reservations.

Universidad Popular del Darién. The Universidad Popular del Darién is formally part of the University of Panama in Panama City. It was founded in 1979 to provide regular university training, especially in agriculture and environmental sciences, and to serve the needs of the farming population of the area. It is located in Villa Darién. It stands on a 21 ha farm, much of which is forest, and in 1984 had only one building, then under construction. This structure serves as office, class-room, and dormitory for some of the university employees.

The UPD has five professors teaching a range of topics including horticulture and ecology. Classes are generally taught outside the UPD grounds in nearby communities during evenings. In a class meeting observed in Nicanor, a lecture on ecological principles of agriculture was given to a group of 30, including men, women, and adolescents. A group of approximately 10 individuals remained after the class to formalize plans for establishing a demonstration parcel of vegetable crops in the community under the direction of another UPD professor.

On the grounds of the UPD, another demonstration established by the director of Ecosystem Protection combines native fast-growing lumber species and annual crops. This plot consists at present of 1 ha of forest which has been cleared of trees and brush, leaving only young robles (Tabebuia sp.) of 2 to 3 m in height. Roble is a valuable lumber species in this area, and the objective of the experiment is to combine the forestry species with common agricultural crops such as plantain and maize to demonstrate and test alternative cropping methods for the area. The Ecosystem Protection Programme is new in the university, but it is hoped it will take a dynamic lead in experimentation and demonstration in agro-forestry as a basis for development in Darién.

Both the UPD and RENARE base their activity on the supposition that farmers lack information regarding appropriate agricultural practices and realistic alternatives to current practices. The focus on demonstration plots, courses, and community participation is designed to directly confront this problem.

Parks and Wildlands. The administration of parks and wildlands is the responsibility of RENARE. These areas are threatened by pressure from land-seeking colonists, yet play an essential part in the environmental protection which is of great importance for the agricultural future of newly colonized areas.

Slightly more than 15 per cent (1.16 million ha) of Panamanian national territory falls within protected areas (some existing, others proposed) under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (table 12). These lands are protected by 71 employees of the National Park Service. Approximately half of the protected areas of the country are found in Darién, in Darién National Park, and the Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve, with seven and two guards respectively, an average of one guard for 63,888 ha.

Darién National Park extends along the Panama-Colombia border and is an area which was originally administered by COPFA as part of its strategy for preventing the extension of hoof-and-mouth disease into Central and North America. Since the disease can be transmitted through live animals or unprocessed animal products, the maintenance of an unpopulated strip of forest serves to impede the unintentional movement of the disease from farm to farm. Under park management, an effort will be made to remove nonindigenous squatters from the park, since their extensive cattle ranching techniques are a major environmental disturbance and complicate the control practices for hoof-andmouth disease. The Indians do not keep cattle and practice a non-commercial shifting agriculture on a small scale, or produce plantains commercially. Non-indigenous colonization of the park area has not been extensive, due to the lack of access roads, which inhibits commercialization of agricultural products.

The Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve faces much more difficult problems of management. The area is under the management of the local municipality of La Palma, which is responsible for its maintenance and protection. Nevertheless, the reserve has not been legally constituted as yet, and the municipality has not kept squatters out of the area. The authority for the titling process within the reserve area has been ceded to RENARE; although the granting of permissions has been halted, the reserve lands are being continually occupied.

Agrarian Reform. Darién at present is experiencing a rapid population increase. The opening of the new highway has made nearly all of the province accessible, or accessible in the foreseeable future. The 1980 census reported 2,554 farms in Darién, up from 1,291 in 1970. The primary objective of the Agrarian Reform Agency is to demarcate and begin the titling process on occupied lands. Individual parcels are limited to 50 ha, with a maximum road frontage of 200 lineal metres.

Land titling is not universal in Panama. Only 34,940 of the 150,820 farms in all Panama have land titles, while in Darién, only 45 farms of 2,554 were found to be titled in the 1980 census. Farmers are accustomed to carrying out all land transactions through letters of sale or other quasi-legal methods and generally have no real understanding of the titling process. To date, the Agrarian Reform Agency has granted only three land titles in Darién but has issued at least 1,000 applications for land adjudication. The slow rate of titling reflects in part the indecision with regard to the legal status of the recently colonized lands and in part the lack of resources invested in the process. Applications for adjudication provide Agrarian Reform with records of occupancy and give the colonist access to bank loans for agricultural purposes. Agrarian Reform officials note that there still remains a certain amount of confusion among the farmers, who in many cases think that the application is in fact their land title.

Table 12. Wildlands of Panama

Management category and name Province Extension
Altos de Campana National Park Panamá 4,816
Portobelo National Park Colón 11,000
Volcán Barú National Park

Darién - National Park World Patrimony

Chiriquí 14,000
Site Biosphere Reserve Darién 575,000
Soberanía National Park Panama & Colón 22,500
La Amistad National Park
Chiriqui & Bocas
del Toro
Bacas del Toro National Park
Bocas del Toro 6,300
Isla de las Perlas National Park
Cope National Park
Coclé 35,000
Chagres National Park
Panama & Colón 76,000
Cerro Hoya Resource Reserve
Veraguas & Los Santos 18,000
Montuoso Forest Reserve Herrera 10,000
Wildlife Reserve Cenegón del Mangle Herrera -
Wildlife Reserve Isla Iguana Los Santos 53
Wildlife Reserve Peñón de la Honda Los Santos -
Wildlife Reserve Cienaga de las Macanas
Herrera -
Recreational Park Lago Gatún
Recreational Natural Area Metropolitana
Colón 120
(Curundu) Panama 265
Protective Forest Palo Seco Bocas del Toro 240,000
Total area 1,163,054

Source: Internal documents, RENARE.

A major goal of the head of the Santa Fe office of Agrarian Reform is to map adjudicated lands to avoid conflicts. One class of adjudicated lands comprises those which have been recently occupied. These are generally 50 ha or less, and many have been registered with the agency. Recently adjudicated farms have not been located precisely on maps. The other class consists of farms which existed before the construction of the highway. These farms may be quite large, but their precise boundaries are not known. A map has been issued which approximately locates these farms, but is not precise enough for the purposes of the Agrarian Reform office. The major conflicts which have arisen have been between lumber concessions and farmers, since there is no way for RENARE to know if they are granting concessions in areas occupied by colonists. Latent conflicts exist between old farms and new farms, since Agrarian Reform employees recognize that they have no way to know if they may be locating farms on already existing farms.

Another major question is the disposition of lands restricted by plans for the proposed Sea Level Canal. Decree 103 of 1966 established that a large part of the lands of Darién were inadjudicable, in order to avoid future conflicts with the construction of a new canal. The plans for this canal are generally believed to have fallen through, and the law has not been recognized by Agrarian Reform in the past, although it is still in force. Consultations with Agrarian Reform lawyers through the main office in Panama have confirmed the inadjudicable status of these lands, but the local officials are under pressure from functionaries of the national Agricultural Development Bank (Banco de Desarrollo Agropecuario) to ignore the law so that loans can be authorized on the basis of adjudication applications.

The question of adjudicability of lands is of major importance in Darién since large parts of the region are under various sorts of restrictions. There are three major Indian reservations, one large proposed biological reserve, and a national park which occupies the entire border area with Colombia. It is estimated that if the lands declared inadjudicable by decree 103 are included, 80 per cent of all land in Darién is not adjudicable.

Realistically, the question of adjudicability of land seems to be moot. The Agrarian Reform Agency has restricted its efforts to the legalization of farms which have been spontaneously occupied, refusing to proceed where there is some doubt as to adjudicability. Given the indeterminate status of the region, the agency does not have a clear enough mandate either to legalize farms in general and involve them in the formal economic and land tenure system of the nation or to remove squatters from prohibited areas. In default, farmers proceed with land occupation and land transferences through informal agreements. By the time the legal status is clarified, the lands will very likely have a fairly long history of informal tenure agreements, and Agrarian Reform will be put in the uncomfortable situation of legalizing (or adjudicating disputes over) informal claims or trying to evict farmers on lands that are finally defined as inadjudicable.

Although the Agrarian Reform Agency limits land titles to 50 ha farms, it is recognized that this is not a legally fixed limit and that there are no provisions to prevent these lands from being consolidated into larger farms. It is believed that many farms are jointly owned by family members and that these farms actually exceed the 50 ha limit desired by Agrarian Reform.

The National Environmental Commission

Official awareness of the importance of environmental questions has resulted in the creation of the National Environmental Commission. While it has no executive powers, as a presidentially named commission it has direct access to policy makers. Several of its recommendations to the president (CNMA 1983) bear on the process of colonization and will be mentioned here.

The most comprehensive of its recommendations was for the creation of an Institute of Natural Renewable Resources to replace the present RENARE. As a dependency of the Ministry of Agriculture, RENARE has much less ability to make and carry out policy than it would as an autonomous institute. Although RENARE has grown considerably, it suffers from an inability to control physical and budgetary resources, which are allegedly siphoned off into other areas designated at the ministry level without its knowledge or consent. The environmental commission recommendation was subsequently accepted and RENARE became an autonomous institute, with its own budget and administration.

The commission also calls for a specific recognition of the environmental and forestry resources of Darién and a reinforcement of the forestry and protection activities in the area. Two other recommendations are for agro-forestry research and environmental education. The agro-forestry strategy is mentioned in the context of a strategy for "eco-development," designed to protect fragile environments, and is accompanied by a plan for an emergency programme to assign 300 state employees to tree nurseries and roadside tree plantation activities. Another aspect of the campaign to improve environmental conditions involves "the permanent retraining of technicians, teachers, students, producers and other users of the information" (CNMA 1983:40).

Current Problems Associated with Colonization in Darién

Even a brief visit to Darién reveals problems which must be considered in any programme for establishing an environmentally sound and sustainable colonization of the area.

The most outstanding problems with regard to colonization in Darién are administrative. The political indecision and the lack of co-ordination between government agencies combine to frustrate and demoralize the government officials assigned to colonization and environmental protection tasks.

Evidence of the lack of political will can be seen in various situations in the area. For example, the existence of an important natural resource area (Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve) with incomplete authorizing legislation is a serious oversight, especially in view of the area's function as a water source for the human population of the area. The damage done to the area before its legal status is clarified will have serious consequences in the event of lower than average rainfall in the area (as happened in 19811982).

The inability to define the legal status of lands included in the Sea Level Canal decree is another example. Although the Sea Level Canal plan may not be revived, it sets a dubious precedent when Agrarian Reform officials are obligated to operate illegally and weakens the capability of the Agrarian Reform Agency of environmental and land use control through the use of land titling as an incentive. Ideally, titling and possession could be made contingent on the implementation of ecologically appropriate management strategies, but this possibility diminishes as informal, uncontrolled forms of possession proliferate.

Problems of lack of co-ordination between government agencies in part reflect the lack of definition of priorities and goals. A clear example is the mapping of land claims. Given the repercussions which arise from land tenure uncertainty, mapping of land claims is an indispensable prerequisite to an ordered process of land occupation and use. Nevertheless, the request for such a map has not generated any concrete mapping activity for several months. Similarly, technicians in the field realize the deficiency of basic data for making land use recommendations. Nevertheless, each governmental agency has an independent set of priorities which may not include the generation of information necessary to other agencies. A unified set of regional priorities would be an important step in resolving this problem.


Deforestation and colonization are taking place with very little supervision or technical support from government agencies. Although a large part of Darién is legally protected, the mechanisms for enforcement are deficient, and the areas which are not being colonized are those which are too inaccessible to be desirable to colonists. Darién National Park and the Indian reservations have not been greatly affected by colonists, but these are areas which are quite distant from the Inter-American Highway. Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve, on the other hand, is located close to population centres and to the highway and is being colonized despite the presence of two RENARE employees assigned to guard the area.

To avoid long-term problems in the development of Darién, a much more decisive programme is necessary on the part of government agencies. At present, development plans and environmental protection laws exist but are not enforced due to the lack of administrative and financial support to the local offices. The enforcement of existing laws and the execution of existing plans would have an extremely beneficial effect on the process of development in the area. For example:

  1. A more forceful application of environmental controls in the 8 km strip along the Darién highway by the Agrarian Reform Agency or by RENARE has been prescribed in several development plans for Darién.
  2. In 1978 the OAS published a fairly complete set of recommendations for integrated development of Darién, including colonization and conservation, but the execution of this plan is not currently in evidence.
  3. The administrative confusion arising out of the lack of land occupation maps fairly clearly contributes to the deforestation of Indian reservations.
  4. RENARE officials have stated that environmental obligations are not as clearly stated as they could be in lumber concession agreements and suggested that these documents could be improved.

More recently, a set of recommendations has been proposed by the National Environmental Commission which touches on these problems and many more. The weakest link in the control of environmental problems at this time is execution rather than planning.

There is also a need for the development of basic technical information, especially in the area of agro-forestry. Local officials and even farmers have been convinced of the need for some sort of forestry to meet the special needs of the area. There are no models ready for immediate implementation in the area, although research has begun on some alternatives. Viable alternatives must address the question of short-term utility and profitability of the agro-forestry systems, because Darién colonists tend to be poor. There is an active interest in mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and cedro espinoso (Bombacopsis quinatum) in the area, and these species are being produced on a smallscale in the RENARE nursery near Metetí.

Agro-forestry programmes are being carried out by RENARE, the University of Panama, the Universidad Popular del Darién, and the IDIAP. Each of these programmes has developed independently, with a notable lack of co-ordination between them. The programme of the University of Panama is the most advanced and has the additional advantage of being formally associated with the Universidad Popular del Darién. A programme for financing and co-ordinating these programmes would be a major contribution to the future development of Darién, especially if it would permit activities to go beyond the demonstration phase and take a more active role in promoting the establishment of agro-forestry systems. This very likely will require more work in the perfection of production systems and other support activities like those which are usually directed toward other agricultural production, including extension, credit, etc.

As mentioned previously, unsatisfactory enforcement of existing land use regulations is a major problem. Clarification of land holdings through a process of mapping and land adjudication is a current strategy of local agencies in Darién, but it is being carried out very slowly; more resources and clearer mandates of action must be given to local offices to allow them to carry out this policy.

Also lacking is an understanding of on-farm land management strategies in Darién, as well as those of logging companies and possibly those of local indigenous groups. Although the general process of colonization and pasture planting is known, there are many questions which must still be answered before effective legislative or administrative strategies can be developed to control land misuse. Long-term plans of farmers, the role of land speculation, the effect of on-farm lumbering, and different types of lumber entrepreneurship, etc., all are factors which must be understood to facilitate future land management planning.


Nicaragua possesses some 52,000 km² of humid tropical lands on its eastern coast in the provinces of Zelaya and Río San Juan. The climate of this area is much more humid than that of the rest of the country, and attempts to incorporate it into the national economy have been only temporarily successful. Banana, oil-palm, and cacao have been commercially produced, but their importance has declined due to disease. Experimentation with rubber began in the 1940s at the El Recreo experiment station, and coconut and raicilla (Cephaelis ipecacuana) have been commercially produced on a small scale. A plan for large-scale colonization of the region was elaborated and implemented in the 1960s to relocate farmers from the intensively used agricultural lands of western Nicaragua, and it was expected that farmers could produce grain using agricultural machinery and chemicals, and that extensive cattle ranching would also be undertaken (Marie Castillo 1968), Much to their credit, the Nicaraguan government recognized the serious ecological limitations of the production of annual crops in these humid regions and began programmes of permanent crop plantation. Nevertheless, a large colonist population of small farmers had already been established in the area, presenting planning and development problems for the future.

The colonization of the Atlantic area was begun in the 1960s under the name PRICA (Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas de Colonización). The project included plans for the colonization of the entire foothill region of more than 5 million ha bordering on the Caribbean lowlands, in a nearly continuous belt from the Costa Rican to the Honduran borders. The area near Rama and Nueva Guinea, designated "Zone F" (also called Rigoberto Cabezas) in the project and covering more than 800,000 ha (see map 6), was selected as the focus of the present investigation. Nueva Guinea is no longer part of the agricultural frontier but a well-established community. More active colonization fronts are found in San Carlos, Siuna, and Kukra Hill, near Bluefields.

Map 5. Nicaragua: forest cover (source: Corrales 1983).

Little written information is available regarding the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area. With the revolution of 1979, many government files and documents disappeared or were dispersed. Information which has been assembled under the post-1979 government in most cases is not in published form and circulates as internal documents within the ministries. Many of these documents are not available for consultation, and due to the intensity of guerrilla activities in the Nueva Guinea area, it was not visited during this investigation. Information had to be assembled through interviews with individuals who had worked in Nueva Guinea in recent years.

Between 1980 and 1984, a new policy for development of Zelaya Department was implemented. This policy involved an emphasis on perennial crops such as cacao, rubber, oil-palm, and coconut, managed in co-operatives. These cooperatives were not to include the production of annual crops. Only the cacao plantation project was under way at the time of the investigation. The first phase of the development plan was projected to bring between 10,000 and 20,000 ha of land under cultivation of the four perennial crops.

Map 6. Nicaragua: provinces and PRICA land settlement area.

The Caribbean Region of Nicaragua

The primary objective of the pre-1979 colonization in the Caribbean region was to resettle farmers displaced from the fertile alluvial soils of western Nicaragua by cotton production. While the immediate motivation for this movement was a volcanic eruption which affected farm lands in the west, part of the migration was motivated by the expansion of cottom production in the western lowlands. Another - unstated - objective seems to have been the extension of cattle pastures into the tropical regions of Nicaragua and the linking of those pasture areas to western Nicaragua through a series of new roads. Neither objective took into account the special conditions or capabilities of tropical regions, and in fact both seem to be based on the assumption that conditions there are similar to those in the western part of the country.

Table 13. Areas and types of forests, Nicaragua

Type of forest km²
Lowland rain forest 25,000
Highland rain forest 10,000
Dry tropical rain forest 4,000
Lowland pine forest 4,500
Highland pine forest 1,200
Total 44 700

Source: Corrales 1983.

Zelaya Department is a broad plain generally lower than 100 m altitude and extending up to 150 km inland from the Caribbean in some areas. Rainfall ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm annually and is heaviest in the south-eastern coastal regions from San Juan del Norte (on the border with Costa Rica, where a record 8,162 mm were recorded in 1942) to Bluefields. Rainfall decreases as one moves inland along the Rio San Juan and north to the Rio Coco on the frontier with Honduras. Most of the department experiences a brief dry season of two to three months, during which average monthly precipitation is below 60 mm. Average temperatures are generally 25° C or above. Most of the forests that remain are located in the Atlantic region, with the most important categories of forest being lowland rain forest and highland rain forest ("cloud forest") (see table 13 and map 2; note that table 13 refers to all of Nicaragua).

Despite its great geographical extension (approximately one-half the surface area of Nicaragua), the Caribbean region of Nicaragua has a small population. The population of the region in 1968 was 120,870 (19,047 in Rio San Juan and 101,833 in Zelaya) as compared to the national population of 1,875,297. In terms of area, the Caribbean region covers 66,542 km² of a total national territory of 118,350 km² (7,448 km² in Rio San Juan and 59,094 km² in Zelaya). Population density in the Caribbean region as of 1968 was 1.79 inhabitants per square kilometre as compared to 15.56 for Nicaragua as a whole (Incer 1970).


PRICA was a highly ambitious and optimistic plan based on inadequate information. Two basic misconceptions were that large extensions of suitable agricultural land existed in the area and that large tracts of land were unoccupied. The project as a whole was programmed to affect 5.8 million ha, but most activity seems to have been concentrated in the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea.

At the beginning of the settlement of the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea within the PRICA project (one of approximately a dozen), a survey team set out to investigate the condition of the land. In an area of 860,000 ha, the IAN (Instituto Agrario de Nicaragua) had expected to formalize the titles of some 1,000 existing family farms and to settle 3,500 more in the same area. Taylor (1969) reports, however, that survey teams found the area to be filled with settlers at the time of the first visit by IAN (no further documentation was located to indicate what had been done in that case).

Table 14. Land use potential for Zone F. PRICA (all measurements in manzanas, 1 mz= .69 ha)

Use potential Area %
Broad (all uses) 282,919 33
Broad (perennial) 0 0
Limited 181,130 21
Very limited 329,821 38
Forestry 46,905 5
Restricted 21,454 2
Total 862,229 100

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 19;'8.

Initial estimations of land use potential for the area seem to have been overly optimistic. PRICA documents (IICA-MAG-BID 1978) suggested that 33 per cent of the land in Zone F was appropriate for all kinds of agriculture (table 14). This figure was unrealistically high, and later surveys reported a drastically reduced area appropriate for agriculture. Whereas PRICA evaluations indicated that current land use left a great possibility for improvement and an increase in production (table 15), land may have been in use up to or beyond its capacity even in 1978.

One explanation offered by employees of IRENA for the colonization project indicated that the project's major objective was not land distribution. Large tracts of land were said to be assigned to military personnel and politicians, and the development of a small-farm population was actually meant to create a work-force for large ranches. Small farmers were reported to be contracted for deforestation and the sowing of pasture. Another motivation was the supply of raw material for the plywood factory established at Tipitapa, which is near Managua on the road to the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area.

In 1978 the population of the Rigoberto Cabezas area was approximately 26,089 (see table 16). Sixty-five per cent of this population was distributed in 24 communities, with nearly 35 per cent unassociated with the communities. Comparing population data with land titling information (table 17), a large majority of titles awarded and lands titled were outside the planned colonies. The average size of farms outside the colonies was twice that of farms inside the colonies. These unexplained inconsistencies in titling seem to confirm suspicions regarding the objectives of the PRICA programme.

Table 15. Land use in PRICA Zone F. 1977 (all measurements in mz)

Land use Area %
Annual crops 1,248 0.14
Pastures 341,301 39.58
Pastures and crops 151,188 17.53
Forests 256,969 29.80
Forests and crops 82,332 9.56
Forests and pastures 29,191 3.39
Total 862,229 100.00

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Table 16. Population distribution for Rigoberto Cabezas Project Area, 1976

Community Population # Families % Population
Nueva Guinea 1,989 104 7.69
Rio Plata 437 66 1.65
Verdún 685 117 2.63
Yolaina 746 116 2.86
Los Angeles 908 114 3.48
La Esperanza 761 139 2.92
Nuevo León 535 93 2.05
Jerusalén 629 108 2.41
Corocito 615 84 2.36
Los Laureles 683 98 2.62
Tacanistes 515 97 1.97
Talolinga 648 100 2.48
Kurinwas 603 98 2.31
San Jose 645 128 2.47
San Martín 511 118 1.96
Rio Rama 752 138 2.88
San Antonio 905 117 3.47
San Ramón 446 93 1.71
San Miguel 899 141 3.45
Naciones Unidas 791 151 3.03
Nuevos Horizontes 518 97 1.99
Providencia 632 181 2.42
Serrano 727 169 2.79
Somoza 509 207 1.95
Rigoberto Cabezasa 9,000 1,500 34.55
Total 26,089 4,374 100.10

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

aThis category is not explained in the source, but it seems to be the unincorporated farmers of the area.

Table 17. Land titles: Area and number in Nueva Guinea 1976 (all measurements in mz)

Colony # Area
Nueva Guinea 97 4,820
Los Angeles 53 2,217
Verdún 85 5,174
La Esperanza 91 4,522
Yolaina 92 4,473
Nuevo Leon 51 2,485
Outside defined colonies 2,184 222,420
Total 2,653 246,111
Percentage outside defined colonies 82 90
  Inside of
Outside of
Average farm size 51 102

Source: ICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Nueva Guinea in the 1980s

The general evaluation by Ministry of Agriculture personnel of the colonization experience in Nueva Guinea is that it has been disastrous. Yields are low, costs of production are high, and the rate of repayment on agricultural loans is 3 per cent.

It is reported that in at least two communities (Talolinga and Kurinwas) lands are being abandoned due to the severe competition from weeds. This is a common problem in humid tropical forest areas cleared for agriculture. Aggressive sunseeking weeds are generally not present on the forest floor. Their population increases with each year of cultivation, requiring more time and effort for weeding.

In view of the negative evaluations by agronomic workers, recent data show a surprising orderliness in farms and farm development. MIDINRA has assembled information for 120 farmers whose lands are destined to be affected by the cacao project." This information shows that the majority of the farm land in Nueva Guinea was in pasture, while some 24 per cent was used for crops (table 18). The use of an average of 23 mz in the production of corn, rice, and beans on certain farms makes it seem likely that there was extensive use of wage labourers. The existence of a large landless population is further suggested by data on membership in the proposed cacao co-operatives, where only 7.5 per cent of the members of the new co-operatives are landowners (11 of 145); nearly half (1,330 mz) of the required land has now been assigned to the co-operatives.

Table 18. Land use for different farm types: 120 farmers in Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz)

  Type of land use on farm
Agriculture Pasture Forest House plot Total
Type of farm Area % Area % Area % Area % Area %
Agriculture 23 47 23 47 2 4 1 2 49 100
Ranch and agriculture 11 23 34 72 0 0 2.2 5 47 100
Ranch 5 6 67 90 1 1 2 3 74 100
Average 14 24 41 71 2 2 2 3 57 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

Table 19. Destination of cultivated crops for 120 farmers in Nueva Guinea

Crop % Consumed % Sold
Rice 40 60
Maize 35 65
Beans 30 70
Tubers 100 0
Plantain 100 0

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

The majority of food grains produced in the area are produced for sale, while production of plantains and tubers is strictly for home consumption (table 19).

There has been considerable stability in farm size since the initial colonization. Table 20 shows that over half the farms have 50 mz, which is the size of initial allotments made by IAN, and 85 per cent of the farms are between 30 and 99 mz. The most successful farmers, i.e. those who have managed to buy cattle, are those who have been longest in the area (see table 21). Sixty-four per cent of the 120 farmers (77 individuals) have been on their farms more than seven years. *

The population of Nueva Guinea has grown impressively since its establishment. Devé (1983) estimates that there are 85,000 inhabitants (13,000 families) in Nueva Guinea, while other estimates are as high as 100,000 (reported by INETER). The 800,000 ha originally destined for the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization could theoretically be divided into 16,000 parcels of 50 ha, which suggests that Nueva Guinea could be regarded as a mature, if poor, agricultural area.

Table 20. Farm size among 120 farmers of Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz; approx. date 1984)

Farm size No. of farms Percentage
Less than 30 13 11
31 to 49 12 10
50 75 62
51 to 99 15 13
More than 100 5 4
Total 120 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project


Table 21. Time of possession of parcels by type of farmer


Percentage of farmers

Less than
2 years
3 to 6
More than
7 years
Farmer 14 28 58
Farmer and rancher 0 20 80
Rancher 0 33 67

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project 1984.

Agronomists working in the area note that there have been some technological innovations by farmers in response to the environmental conditions they face. These include the abandonment of land plowing and brush burning to avoid destroying the thin layer of topsoil. Farmers have also adopted a fallow rotation of three to five years between crops.

Current Development Plans for Eastern Nicaragua


The Nicaraguan Natural Resource Institute (IRENA) is the national entity most concerned with questions of forest conservation and resource management. Since the revolution of 1979, the policy focus of national institutions has been explicitly directed to production for the generation of income. IRENA has been generally overlooked in this process, since its major function was perceived as that of resource conservation and therefore the obstruction of the productive process. In August 1984, IRENA was in the process of being incorporated into the Agricultural and Agrarian Reform Ministry, which many hoped would provide it with a better position for communicating and enforcing its mandated objectives.

The major policy interest of IRENA in humid areas was the improvement of forest management techniques. A Bulgarian team worked on this plan until August of 1984, when it was removed from the area due to intense guerrilla activity. A report was prepared in the meantime. A Swedish team was also working on the problem.

IRENA's office of co-operatives was planning a joint CORFOP-IRENA project for the production of charcoal from almendro de río (Andira inermis), which has a wood too hard to be commonly used. One of the major activities of this office was environmental education carried out in agricultural areas. Instruction was to be given in co-operatives and schools and focus on conservation and the prevention of forest fires. Its activities also included the promotion of agro-forestry through the establishment of demonstrations in a few private farms of the Nueva Guinea area.

In 1984, a draft of a "natural resources strategy" was being considered by government authorities, although no copies were available for wider circulation. The major tasks were presented verbally in interviews with members of IRENA staff. They included (l) management of natural forest areas; (2) enrichment of degraded forests; and (3) the enhancement of the process of natural regeneration. The details of the strategy are expected to be presented in the final report by the Bulgarian mission.

The subdirector of IRENA emphasized that everything having to do with the advance of the agricultural frontier was the province of MIDINRA and ClERA and not part of the mandate of IRENA.


CORFOP is the nationalized wood-processing industry which was originally part of IRENA but was separated several years ago in an administrative reorganization.

The major concern of CORFOP is forest production. In Nueva Guinea its major activity is the management and exploitation of broad-leaf forests. Investigation is limited to areas in the forest production areas.

Another activity of CORFOP is the development of forestry co-operatives. One suggestion which is still in the planning stages is the management of unproductive forest areas for fuelwood. The suggested project areas would be brush lands which produce no marketable timber and which would be harvested for fuelwood and planted to Eucalyptus. While this strategy could conceivably be applied in Nueva Guinea, it was reported that it would be more likely in areas closer to existing population centres in western and central Nicaragua.

It is noteworthy that individuals in other ministries perceived CORFOP's activities as highly exploitative and short-sighted. They cited an exclusive focus on harvesting with little emphasis on reforestation and insufficient attention given to the design of management strategies.

MlDINRA's Cacao Project

One of the most active projects in the development of land use alternatives for the humid lands of Nicaragua is the MIDINRA cacao project. This ambitious project is attempting to redress some of the problems caused by the haphazard colonization which had previously been promoted in the area. Members of the project staff pointed out that farmers had been brought from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic area by the PRICA project without any preparation or technical assistance. Early research efforts at the El Recreo experiment station were made to test the possibility of lime applications to the acid soils of the area, but the test results indicated that the treatment would be too expensive to be economically viable, and no comprehensive management recommendations seem to have resulted.

Cacao is one of four crops MIDINRA promoted for cultivation in tropical areas. The others are rubber, coconut, and oil-palm. Projects involving cacao, coconut, and oilpalm are well developed, while research was still being conducted on rubber production in August of 1984. While the immediate plans for these projects contemplated less than 20,000 ha, MIDINRA technicians foresaw the cultivation of these crops on a very large scale in the relatively near future.

The cacao co-operatives are located on the best lands available, with the objective of completely replacing the production of annual crops in the area. The project envisions a number of co-operatives formed of 8 to 25 families each, with an average of 6 mz of cacao per family. The plan calls for the planting of cacao with plantain (Musa spp.) for shade, to be replaced later with tree species. There was a proposal for the plantations to be granted 30-year loans with a 7-year grace period, but the final decision on financing will be made at the ministry level by MIDINRA and the National Finance System.

The establishment of the co-operatives began with donations of land and purchases from farmers who did not wish to participate in the project. This proved to be too expensive, however, and the project now relies on other methods.

Project technicans felt they faced several problems in the implementation of the project. First, there was the poor track record of government agencies in the area. Farmers had seen several projects come and go; the production of pineapple and coffee had been promoted, only to discover that no marketing provisions had been made. There was also a lack of co-ordination between the cacao project loan programme and that of the National Development Bank, which resulted in some cases of farmers using one loan to pay off another, rather than making the prescribed investments.

One of the weakest links in the development of alternative crops is the capacity for biological research and the maintenance of germ plasm collections. There was an active programme at El Recreo, but administrative reorganizations left the station without any strong institutional affiliations for a time, during which the technical staff and collections were dispersed. Operations were moved to a new station, called Los Pintos, near Nueva Guinea, and in August 1984 there seemed to be an increasingly close cooperation between the cacao and rubber projects and the research station at Los Pintos.

Land Management Planning

Although both IRENA and MIDINRA have planning departments which deal with questions of land use planning, INETER (Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales) is the most comprehensive in scope; the other planning agencies do not consider integrated agricultural and forestry land use planning to be their concern and focus almost exclusively on the activities of their respective dependencies. Nevertheless, there still seems to be some doubt as to the final status and administrative authority of INETER with respect to the other planning departments.

INETER is in the process of developing overall land use strategies within a "national framework for physical planning." One of its major tasks is the collection and organization of data. INETER recognized the need for biological investigation into appropriate cropping strategies and acknowledges the value of the experimental station at Los Pintos. Referring to Nueva Guinea, crops such as plantain, pineapple, coffee, and tropical tubers have been mentioned by INETER as possible cropping alternatives to the current emphasis on basic grains. (Notice the apparent disregard, or ignorance of, the MIDINRA plan.)

The maintenance of Nueva Guinea's current agricultural focus is seen as extremely costly for the nation, given the low output of the area and the necessary government support. Costs of production are thought to be three times higher in Nueva Guinea than in other areas of the country for the production of grains. At the same time, natural fertility of the area has declined drastically over the past 15 years, and yields for unfertilized fields are one-third what they were at the time of colonization. In INETER it was asserted that cattle ranching is unsuccessful in the area due to the excessive humidity, which affects the health of the animals. Nevertheless, a technician from MIDINRA's planning group reported that cattle production was one of the best alternatives for the area.

While there is as yet no formally defined policy with regard to land use, a general strategy has been suggested. This strategy would focus on the settlement of alluvial valley lands, with Sebaco and Jalapa given as examples (these areas are neither particularly humid nor lowland forest areas). A major aim would be the use of "black soils," vertisols which expand and contract according to the level of humidity and have been avoided for agricultural purposes due to a lack of appropriate land use strategies. These soils are fairly common and represent a major soil resource if they can be made to produce, although they tend to be found in the country's drier Pacific lowlands. In sum, INETER seems to have a good grasp of the environmental problems and to understand the need for a proper planning of land use. The next major hurdle for the agency is to implement its recommendations and to come to terms with the other agencies more closely involved in the actual administration of tropical lands.

Planning for Humid Tropics

A new administrative structure is being formed to deal exclusively with development questions in the humid tropics; this structure comprises the directorates of Humid Tropics and of Teaching and Investigation, both of MIDINRA.

In 1984, the Directorate of Humid Tropics was only eight months old and was still in the process of formation. Its function was to serve on the MIDINRA Project Council and provide information and perspectives on humid tropical land use in the process of project formation. The directorate had identified several important problems to be considered in the development of the Nueva Guinea area.

1. Fuelwood. The extensive deforestation in the colonization area has created a fuelwood scarcity, especially in heavily populated areas. Projects should be designed with this problem in mind, and an effort should be made to use fuelwood producing trees wherever possible.

2. Mixed cropping strategies. The intermixing of crops is recommended as a way to avoid environmental problems associated with grain production in humid areas and, at the same time, as a means of providing a subsistence for farmers. Specific mention is made of grains and plantain, although the grains are strictly for noncommercial, smallscale use.

3. Soil fertility management. It may be desirable to include an understorey of small plants with permanent crops, for reasons of both fertility and soil erosion. There is a need for the consideration of soil recuperation in degraded areas and for special studies of the use and management of acid soils.

4. Water balance. While the Nueva Guinea area generally has a short dry season, it seems to be increasing in length and intensity. There are no sources of ground-water in the area, and in a recent, especially severe dry season, cacao production was notably affected.

The Directorate of Teaching and Investigation has formally joined the UNAN (Autonomous National University of Nicaragua) with MIDINRA The objective is to reinforce MIDINRA's capacity for agricultural development through the linking of training and research facilities. For the humid tropical area, it has been suggested that a training centre be established in El Recreo using the large existing physical plant, which was established in the 1940s for rubber research, for housing and labs. The Fondo Simon Bolívar has funded development of the germ plasm and experimental capacity of the station. The centre is to give agronomists and other biological scientists training directly related to the problems of agricultural development in humid tropical areas. In its initial stages, this centre will have to be staffed by MIDINRA technicians, since the university has no one who could carry out such activities. The programme is seen as an answer to the short-term need for technicians, and students will be given three years of generalized training at the university in Managua and two years of specialization at El Recreo. The objective is the creation of 30 technicians by 1986.

A strategy for investigation was still not fully outlined as of 1984, although there were plans to begin a school of forestry and a division of watershed management.


The outstanding feature of all aspects of Nicaraguan agricultural development, and not only in the field of colonization and humid tropical development, is the lack of fixed organization. Offices, committees, and government agencies are in a state of change, and, as of this writing, plans and strategies had only begun to be sketched out. Projects seem to start at a low level, and there is a notable lack of coordination between different agencies.

Co-ordinating offices such as INETER and the Directorate of Humid Tropics were too new to fully exercise their functions, and project planners therefore generally proceed without consulting them. They face a major challenge in getting their recommendations to be respected by other agencies.

As a result, there is a tendency to focus on short-term rather than longer-term problems, and particularly on commercial production. An especially worrisome manifestation of this problem is in the area of colonization. While it was observed that the government takes an appropriate approach to development in the humid tropics in its selection of perennial crops over annual crops, there will be a minimal impact over five or even ten years, due to the long maturation period of perennials. The 20,000 mz which may be set aside for perennial crops in the envisioned projects are 2.5 per cent of the Nueva Guinea area (not to mention the rest of the Atlantic coastal area), and the few thousand families which may directly benefit form a small portion of the existing population. The effects of the large remaining population on existing forests and exposed soils could be disastrous.

The weakness of overall planning becomes especially critical when the lack of training and inexperience of project technicians and managers are considered. A tendency to focus narrowly on project objectives and ignore peripheral considerations, despite their potential importance for the success of the project, was observed.

There is a need for technical support in the following areas:

1. The training of technicians. The lack of trained and experienced technicians is a major bottle-neck in agricultural development. For tropical areas, there are virtually no technicians available for training or project execution.

2. The cacao project. This project was underway at the time of this report, but it was lacking in information with regard to management alternatives. Questions of varieties of shade, spacings, management practices, etc., had to be defined for the project area. There was also a need for integrated planning, including areas surrounding project areas, especially where this could help to control erosion or improve the water balance for the cacao.

3. Humid tropics programme. The MIDINRA offices specifically concerned with development questions in the humid tropics are in the process of formation. These offices have only recently been established. so their programmes are not yet formulated, but their planning at this stage indicates that they will require technical support in alternative production strategies, such as agro-forestry, as their programme develops.

4. Some provisions must be made for existing colonist populations. While it is clear that these farmers are a burden on the economy, unless they are given technical alternatives, they will continue to cause environmental damage in their efforts to earn a living. The long time required for the implementation of the permanent-crop programmes such as cacao mean that some interim solutions must be developed.


The process of colonization is of extreme importance for Honduras since it competes for forest resources in an economy where wood exports to the United States represented in 1981 approximately 20 per cent of its GNP (USAID n.d.). The value of wood lost through deforestation (largely for agricultural purposes) of broad-leaf forests is estimated by the Ministry of Natural Resources to be 640 million lempiras annually (Honduras 1984a). Honduras has suffered from periodic flooding of agricultural valleys, the severity of which can be linked in part to the process of uncontrolled deforestation in upper watershed areas. At the root of these problems is the combination of poor soils and insecurity of land tenure, which result in a generalized strategy of shifting cultivation. In many areas, primary and secondary forest remnants are continually brought into cultivation within agricultural zones in a process of land conversion that is not formally recognized as "colonization," but rather as a very long fallow system. At the other extreme, a well-defined process of new land colonization is taking place in sparsely populated portions of the country, where large expanses of primary forest are being incorporated into the "agricultural frontier." In this chapter, I will focus on these latter areas, where new land colonization has occurred adjacent to or within major forested areas.

Population Distribution

While the population density of Honduras is not extremely low by Central American standards (25 inhabitants/km²), colonization of new lands is a major feature of the agricultural economy due to the skewed distribution of population within the country. The population is concentrated in the western and central parts of the country; only relatively recently has the northern coast experienced an increase in population, and the three largest departments in the country, Olancho, Gracias a Diós and Colon, remain sparsely populated (see table 22). The economic centres of the country are still located in a corridor which runs from the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific coast, through Tegucigalpa and Comayagua, to San Pedro Sula near the Caribbean and including the cities of La Ceiba and Trujillo in the coastal banana production area. The subsistence agricultural base for the country has traditionally been the western part of the country, between the central corridor and the Salvadorean and Guatemalan borders and including the departments of Copán, Intibucá, Ocotepeque, and Santa Barbara. Population growth, land degradation, and the competition for land between subsistence farmers and commercial export producers have resulted in pressures to move into the low population density areas of the northern and eastern parts of the country (i.e. Yoro, Olancho, Gracias a Diós, Colon, and El Paráiso).

Table 22. Population density by department, Honduras

    Area Inhabs. area Forest
Department Households (km²) per km² (km²) (%)
Central Region  
Atlántida 27,426 4.251 6.45 3,032 71.32
Choluteca 32,930 4.211 7.82 875 20.78
Comayagua 23,362 5,196 4.50 2,424 46.65
Cortés 66,184 3,954 16.74 1,855 46.91
Francisco Morazán 77,393 7,946 9.74 4,186 52.68
Islas de la Bahia 2,785 261 10.67 44 16.86
La Paz 11,375 2,331 4.88 837 35.91
Valle 15.604 1.565 9.97 345 22.04
Western Region  
Copán 27.491 3,203 8.58 931 29.07
Intibuca 14,243 3,072 4.64 1,236 40.23
Lempira 22,536 4,290 5.25 1,178 27.46
Ocotepoque 9,308 1,680 5.54 478 28.45
Santa Barbara 32,884 5,115 6.43 1,900 37.15
Eastern Region  
Colón 14,271 8,875 1.61 8,706 98.10
El Paraíso 23,713 7,218 3.29 2,350 32.56
Gracias a Diós 3,369 16,630 0.20 14,033 84.38
Olancho 24,910 24,351 1.02 20,426 83.88
Yoro 33.220 7,939 4.18 5,652 71.19
Total 463,004 112,088 4.13 70,488 62.89

Sources: FAO 1965; Honduras 1978.

The case of Choluteca may be taken as a negative example of the worst-case scenario involving the process of agricultural expansion. As an area of relatively good soils and easy access by both sea and land, Choluteca has become a major commercial agricultural area. Land reform and commercial development have proceeded with little overall land use planning. Subsistence farmer populations were displaced by the introduction of higher value export crops into their agricultural areas (DeWalt et al. 1982; CSUCA 1978). The farmers were relocated through their own efforts and with the assistance of the Agrarian Reform Agency to the sloping areas of the upper watersheds which drain into the Choluteca basin. The result has been a near total deforestation of the area and a subsequent drying trend in both Choluteca and in Tegucigalpa (Tegucigalpa is in the area of the head-waters of the Choluteca basin); the drying trend has been demonstrated most concretely by the disappearance of permanent springs and watercourses in small-farm agricultural areas, and residents of Tegucigalpa complain of a mean temperature rise over the past 20 years (Dulin, pers. comm. 1984).

A major factor in the problems of the Choluteca basin relates to inappropriate farming practices, which rely on burning for weed control and land preparation and leave barren and easily eroded land at the initiation of the rainy season. It has been reported that farmers use a "slash-and-mulch'' strategy under certain circumstances in which, instead of burning, brush from land clearing is left in the field. It is not clear what the scale of this activity is and whether it is sufficient to reverse current trends (DeWalt et al. 1982). As an immediate solution to land degradation and associated flooding of low-lying areas in the Choluteca basin, an expensive watershed management project has been started for Choluteca (Honduras 1984a), but farmers have already begun to move, both individually and as whole communities, into forest areas in search of more fertile lands.

A combination in Choluteca of over-intensification of annual cropping and commercial pressures pushing grain farmers into areas of poor soils has encouraged the abandonment of old agricultural lands and the colonization of new areas. What is especially disturbing is that this process has begun on fairly good soils; the replication of the process in areas of poorer soils has ominous implications, since the whole process from clearance to abandonment is likely to occur much faster.

Land Use Potential

The narrow distribution of good agricultural land is another motivation for colonization in Honduras. In a country where less than 10 per cent of the soil is suitable for the intensive production of annual crops, one-third of this land is found in the valley bottoms of the sparsely populated eastern provinces (see table 23).

The forest cover gives another indication of the generally poor quality of Honduran soils. Pine forests cover more than 27,000 km². The forests are generally located in poor, sandy soils in areas of moist climates or in shallow, rocky soils in highland areas and are not appropriate for permanent agriculture. Broad-leaf forests cover 40,000 km², and while these forests indicate better soils, the agricultural capacity of these soils is limited by the high rainfall and ambient temperatures which combine to acidify soils and break down organic matter (FAO 1967).

Table 23. Land use potential, Honduras

  Area (km²) % Total
Intensive annual crops 8,726.00 7.8
Intensive perennial crops 0.00 0.0
Extensive annual crops 1,494.80 1.3
Extensive perennial crops 8,670.10 7.8
Silvo-pastoral 1,036.80 0.9
Broad-leaf forest 31,895.00 28.6
Mangroves 1,450.20 1.3
Pine forest 28,281.70 25.3
Protection 30,173.30 27.0
Total 111,728.00 100.0

Source: FAO 1967.

Table 24. Land use in forested lands (km²)

Land use
Sula Olancho Aguán Mosquitia Nation
Total areaa 16,165 18,367 15,610 21,089 112,088
Deforested 2,678 563 948 0 25,636
Cultivated 1,935 432 749 109 7,187
Cultivable 1,491 1,208 2,983 3,214 10,463
Pasture 3,456 1,002 1,508 131 13,706
Forested 10,062 16,164 10,930 18,492 70,488

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

aIn the source document, no explanation was given for inconsistencies in the column entries and column


Despite the limitations on land use potential, population pressure has led to massive land conversion of lands with limited production potential for agricultural purposes. In an analysis of the state of land use in areas of broad-leaf forests, it was concluded that more than one-third of the land in these areas was now being used for agriculture (see table 24). One problem illustrated by the table is that in parts of Honduras, the potential remains to increase food production since there is more cultivable land than there is cultivated land; however, much of this cultivable land is used for pastures.

In the broad-leaf forest region, over 30,000 families have been settled on 138,719 ha through agricultural reform programmes (see table 25). Comparing land reform in broad-leaf areas to that on a national level, 67 per cent of the families affected by reform are in the broad-leaf area, as are 71 per cent of the lands affected.

Table 25. Lands affected by agrarian reform in broad-leaf forest areas

Agricultural administration area No. of families Area (ha)
North-eastern (Olancho) 1,412 8,217
Central eastern (Danlí) 2,466 19,982
Northern (San Pedro Sula) 11,078 48,049
Atlantic coast (La Ceiba) 7,107 62,471
Subtotal 22,063 138,719
National total 32,697 196,178

Table 26. Wood production in Honduras

  Production Wood existence
board feet
6 ha
106 ha
Broad-leaf 4.50 29,264 420 3.00 1.86
Pinea 226.60 1,000,000 170 2.73 1.93
Total 231.10 1,029,264 590 5.73 3.79

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

aWood existence data for pine taken from FAO 1967.

The exploitation of forest resources is one of the alternatives for economic development of Honduras, given its difficult soil conditions. The major efforts for forest industry development have been directed toward the pine forests. While they represent less than one-half the total area of standing forest and only one-third the total volume of wood in existence in Honduras (see table 26), some 98 per cent of all commercial wood production is pine.

In the exploitation of broad-leaf forests, the lack of proper management techniques constitutes a major problem. Very few species are utilized, and forest area remaining after cutting is damaged in the logging operations. According to COHDEFOR (the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation) figures, 11 species make up 94 per cent of all wood exploited in broad-leaf forests (table 27), with an average of 10 to 15 m³ per hectare exploited. Further, as mentioned, there is a lack of conservation techniques, so that forest remaining after logging suffers severe damage (Hernandez and Desloges 1982). Furthermore, commercial logging focuses on relatively pure, dense stands of commercially valuable species to reduce production costs, leaving only low-grade forests. Once access roads have been established by the logging companies, farming populations follow, completing the destruction of the forest left standing by the loggers. The loggers argue that their selective logging is not the major problem with regard to the overall deforestation process, but that it is the subsequent uncontrolled introduction of small-scale farmers who clear land for agricultural purposes that represents the most destructive and longest lasting impact on the forest.

Table 27. Broad-leaf species exploited in Honduras

Species   % Wood exploited
Mahogany Swientenia macrophylla 47.5
Cedar Cedrela odorata 11.7
Sangre Virola koschnyi 8.8
Ceiba Ceiba pentandra 6.7
San Juan   6.7
6 other species   12.6
Total   94.0

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

Table 28. Sistema Social Forestal co-operatives, 1977

No. of groups Activities No. of families
92 Pine resin collection 4,236
3 Sweet gum resin collection 40
3 Tuno latex collection 74
21 Pit-sawing 400

Source: USAID 1978.

One of the more intriguing aspects of COHDEFOR's overall programme is the Sistema Social Forestal (Social Forestry System). In a country with abundant forests, poor farming potential, and a large unemployed population, the SSF'S objective of incorporating farmers into forest exploitation is an extremely attractive concept. Co-operatives have been established for the production of resins, fuelwood, and lumber (see table 28). However, the establishment of such co-operatives has been sporadic and inconsistent due to funding constraints and the limited applicability of this model because of the relatively low income levels and the logistical limitations of the implementing agency, COHDEFOR.

Institutional Aspects of Colonization

Two Honduran institutions are of major importance in the process of new land colonization: INA (Instituto Nacional Agrario, or National Agrarian Institute) and COHDEFOR.

Table 29. Agrarian reform colonies in eastern Honduras, 1983

District No. of members Area (ha)
Catacamas 689 4,950
Dulce Nombre de Culmi 302 3,745
Sta. Maria del Real 140 565
Sn. Fco. Becerra 49 174
Juticalpa 866 4,272
San Esteban 227 1,443
Sn. Fco. de la Paz 11 210
Total 2,284 15,359

Source: INA records, Dulce Nombre de Culmí. Sta. Maria del Real Tegucigalpa.

INA. INA is the agency charged with the fundamental aspects of agrarian reform in Honduras. Its major activities are land adjudication, titling, and the organization of farmers into co-operative units. The activities of INA are focused mostly on the lands of the more densely populated regions of the country, where underutilized lands or remnant forests are adjudicated for peasant groups (see table 29). In Olancho, the activities of INA have been directed in part toward forested areas, as land pressures push farmers to look for new lands. INA'S strategy is built around the maintenance of administrative and technical ties with asentamientos, to promote their co-operative model and to give access to technical assistance. A major new programme is the titling of lands, carried out in coordination with AID. Titling motivates farmers to stay on a single farm and improve it for their own use and it avoids the tendency of farmers with insecure title to sell to avoid conflicts with others. The titling programme has been directed at farming areas of the western part of the country rather than at areas of colonization.

Ideologically, INA is an agrarian reform agency rather than a colonization agency. Its activities are oriented toward the improvement of peasants' abilities to hold on to valuable land in major agricultural areas and to improve their income and political status through organization. The principal focus of INA activity has been the Aguán Valley; this area was originally banana plantation, then abandoned and converted to individual agricultural holdings, and finally expropriated for land reform. The Aguán Valley is exceptional in Central America in its relatively successful establishment of co-operative land holding and agricultural production entities, centring around African oil-palm. (It should be noted that there are serious criticisms regarding the efficiency of the investment of national and international funds in the area. INA has been criticized by some as being a paternalistic national institution which has become the new "employer" of an agricultural proletariat not unlike that of the privately owned banana plantations of the same region.) INA has also been active in other parts of the country, such as Choluteca, but this activity has focused much more on the redistribution of lands than on the implementation of the large-scale, complex organization and productive structure which distinguishes the Aguán Valley.

The incorporation of national lands into agricultural activities is a legal no man's land in practice. A series of overlapping obligations and responsibilities hinder the effective implementation of policies even in cases where it is clearly in the immediate public interest. For example, the watersheds which generate the potable water supplies for Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa are being endangered by land clearance. Despite the legal formation of La Tigra National Park to protect the Tegucigalpa water supply, no institutional mechanism for preventing the entry of squatters has appeared (Dulin, pers. comm. 1984). In Juticalpa, a small group of 20 squatters invaded the watershed generating the city's water; INA was called in to remove the squatters, which it did, but they returned. INA officials are now unwilling to take further action. They feel that the local authorities are not prepared to make the political commitment to reinforce INA activities, so that INA must bear an unreasonable portion of the abuse and ill-feeling which accompanies the removal of the squatters. It seems clear that the enforcement mechanisms are not sufficiently well defined to permit the control of land use patterns even in areas of easy access for government institutions; the possibility of carrying out the necessary enforcement activities in remote areas with little permanent government presence would seem to be correspondingly remote.

Despite its limitations, INA remains a crucial element in natural resource protection. It is the legal mechanism for formalizing land titles over national lands, i.e. forested lands, for the use of individual farmers or those in a co-operative. Nevertheless, INA'S first responsibility is to its farmer clients, and its legalization and establishment of farming communities in forested lands is a source of friction with institutions concerned with forest conservation and management.

COHDEFOR. COHDEFOR is required by law to administer all forest lands in Honduras. It was formed in 1972 to nationalize forestry interests, which had been controlled by foreign companies and which, it was argued, had led to highly exploitative management practices and the expatriation of national income. COHDEFOR was given sweeping powers to regulate all forestry activities, and took over all phases of the lumber industry, from forest management and production to marketing.

Since more than half of Honduras is forested, COHDEFOR'S activities bring it into direct contact with peasant farmers. These contacts have been conflictive in many cases, where COHDEFOR limits or prohibits certain peasant activities (see Murray 1981; Jones 1988). As part of the response to these conflicts, COHDEFOR has instituted a series of programmes under its Sistema Social Forestal in which peasant farmers associate in agro-forestry groups or co-operatives to exploit forest resources on a small scale. Three major activities of these groups are resin tapping (both pine and sweet gum), firewood production, and hand preparation of tropical hardwoods. Only the last of these is found in the recent colonization areas of the country; sweet-gum resin-tapping co-operatives were formed near Culmí and El Carbon in Olancho, but low world prices led to their abandonment, although some independent commercial tapping is still being carried out.

A major effort for the management of broad-leaf forest areas has been made by joint projects of COHDEFOR and ACDI(ACDI is the Spanish acronym for the Canadian International Development Agency). The oldest of these projects is the Cooperativa Agroforestal Atlántida Honduras Limitada (COATLAHL), built around the philosophy that small-scale hand-sawing operations can exploit forest resources more completely and more economically than large-scale enterprises. The projects specifically recognize the generation of labour demand by such activity and include this consideration in many aspects of planning and execution. The COATLAHL programme began in an effort to utilize wood from trees which had been felled by Hurricane Fifi on the north coast of Honduras. In the early years of the project, trees were sawed up and marketed in tablones under the direction of COHDEFOR. More recently, the use of chain-saws has been prohibited, since they are wasteful of the raw material (a chain-saw cut may be 1/4" to 1/2" wide), and the increased rate of forest exploitation threatens to eliminate a source of employment for the cooperative members over the longer term. The organizational model for this operation is very similar to that used by other COHDEFOR agro-forestry co-operatives, in which small-scale operations are licenced and overseen by COHDEFOR but ideally managed in the form of co-operatives or small-scale businesses.

Unfortunately, the overall tenor of relationships between COHDEFOR and farmers tends to be negative on nearly all levels. Large landowners come into conflict with COHDEFOR because of their strategy of "fence creeping," by which a legally established property is extended out into national forest lands simply by moving the fences. Since ground inspections by COHDEFOR are spotty and infrequent and adjacent squatters cannot usually contest the claims of the more poweful landowners, this strategy is generally practiced with impunity. Nevertheless, COHDEFOR is aware of the practice and takes measures to prevent it, thereby earning the animosity of large ranchers.

In a very general sense, COHDEFOR'S mandate creates conflicts with the traditional agricultural production strategy of Honduran small farmers. The general pattern of shifting agriculture and the poor farmers' practice of producing fuelwood to supplement low incomes are adaptations to very difficult environmental conditions, under which farmers have managed to make a living from agriculture, despite the very poor quality of the land. The use of fire for land clearance and pasture management allows the use of land which cannot generally be made to produce in an intensive fashion. Since COHDEFOR is charged with the prevention of forest fires and the control of land clearance, antagonistic relationships frequently arise between the corporation and farmers.

Finally, COHDEFOR'S legal control over all trees may possibily be the country's greatest disincentive to reforestation. It is common to hear stories of farmers who have forests on land they consider their own or even forests which they have either planted or managed for their own long-term benefit that are granted by COHDEFOR to a third party as a forestry concession with little or no remuneration to the farmer. In the end, farmers are very unsure of their rights to forest on the land they manage. Farmers feel severely constrained in their land use decisions by what they feel to be unreasonable restrictions on land clearance, since COHDEFOR generally tries to discourage deforestation for agriculture and grants permission through a bureaucratic procedure. Surveys of on-farm tree plantings in agro-forestry combinations found an exceptionally low incidence on Honduran farms when compared with farms in other Central American countries (see table 30), suggesting that farmers tended to deforest to avoid the controls of COHDEFOR.

Table 30. Agro-forestry combinations on Central American farms (as percentage of farms per country)

Type Costa Rica Panama Nicaragua Honduras
Living fences 84 87 50 19
Fruit-trees 98 94 78 53
Timber 40 44 42 16

Sources: Jones 1982; Jones and Otárola 1981; Jones and Pérez 1982; Lemckert and Campos 1981.

Despite its ambitions to the contrary, COHDEFOR'S control over forests has a negative impact on the conservation of forest resources. As in other Central American countries, Honduran land-holding law is based to a certain extent on a "homesteading" ethic, according to which individuals who occupy and work national lands can gain legal control over the land. The general strategy for establishing control over land is to "unencumber" the land from competing claims. In practice, this means formally purchasing any "improvements" made by other occupants of the land and constant vigilance to ensure that no other farmers occupy and "improve" any part of the farm. The land "owner," for his or her part, in turn improves the land by eliminating forest cover, establishing fence lines, and constructing dwellings and other infrastructure on the farm. The elimination of forest is a method for avoiding potential competing encumbrances; landless farmers feel they have the right to cultivate "unimproved" land, and COHDEFOR can either grant permission to exploit forested land to third parties or prohibit alterations in the forest cover. Given the low percentage of lands with clear title, the strategy of eliminating competing encumbrances is a powerful motivation for deforestation, even though the owner might see economic benefits in the exploitation of the forest resource.

The outcome of the numerous conflicts between COHDEFOR and farmers is a lack of farmer interest in forest resources and a carelessness with regard to their preservation. The lack of understanding on the part of the farmers of COHDEFOR'S function and goals and the historical condition of Honduras as a country with a nearly limitless agricultural frontier create a situation of extreme difficulty for the control of further deforestation and inappropriate land use in the new agricultural lands.

COHDEFOR'S mandate loses moral force due to cases of corruption of COHDEFOR officials, which also confirms the farmers' perception of COHDEFOR controls as an arbitrary limitation of their agricultural activities. COHDEFOR'S institutional policy of favouring large lumber interests over farmers' interests creates an extremely negative situation in which farmers look at the evasion of conservation regulations as a fact of life - farmers have even been reported to burn forests in retaliation for grievances against COHDEFOR (Murray 1981).

The Ministry of Natural Resources. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has a relatively small involvement in colonization at present, although this is likely to change in the future. The MNR is proposing to manage land in agricultural areas with innovative projects on a fairly large scale, and has proposed a large project for the management of the colonization area of Rio Sico-Río Paulaya.

The management of the Choluteca river basin is a major project, financed by USAID. The Choluteca river basin is not a colonization area, but the project is experimenting with methods of incorporating peasant farmers into land management programmes and promoting improved land management techniques on an individual level. The motivation for change will be provided by increased land productivity over the long run and subsidies over the short run.

A proposal for the "Rehabilitation of Principal Watersheds of the Atlantic Coast" was prepared recently, with the objective of improving patterns of land use in the watersheds of the eastern Atlantic coast. The watersheds affected will be those of the Cangrejal, Papaloteca, and Sico rivers, which are located in the sparsely inhabited areas of eastern Colón. In 1988 financing from the Canadian government set the project under way.


Colonization Areas

The process of colonization in Honduras has been a mixture of directed and spontaneous land settlements. The most common pattern seems to be one of the spontaneous movement of farmers into new lands followed by quick support from the government. Nevertheless, one major directed effort at land colonization has taken place in the Aguán River valley, and it is the show-piece of the agrarian reform institute (INA). A number of other areas are being colonized, but with less direct support from the government. These areas are the Cordillera Nombre de Diós, near Trujillo; Dulce Nombre de Culmi, near the head-waters of the Rio Plátano in Olancho; the Sico River Valley in Colón and Olancho; the upper Patuca (also in Olancho) on both the north (Poncaya) and south (Palestine, Nueva Choluteca) sides of the river; the middle Patuca near the confluence of the Rio Wampú in Olancho and Gracias a Diós (see map 7). A new project is being proposed for the Rio Sico-Río Paulaya area, but no detailed information regarding the project is yet available.

The Cordillera Nombre de Diós is in an area which has experienced major population increases in the last 20 years. A major attraction has been the economic development of the north coast, based mainly on the development of agricultural export industries. Another factor in the population growth of the area has been the Bajo Aguán colonization project, by which thousands of farmers have been brought in to utilize the fertile valley lands. For a variety of reasons, there has been a high desertion rate among the new farmers. In conjunction with these new population pressures and in part as a direct result, forests have been cleared from the slopes of the Cordillera in recent years.

Map 7. Honduras: provinces, cities, and eastern rivers.

Dulce Nombre de Culmí is at the end of the road which runs from Tegucigalpa through Juticalpa and Catacamas toward the Honduran Mosquitia. The access to new lands has encouraged an influx of spontaneous colonists.

The Patuca River has also been the site of colonization activities, and is one of the most active areas of deforestation in the country. Exploitation of the north bank of the river was begun by logging concessions which opened roads for the extraction of mahogany and cedar; these roads were then used as access routes by farmers who are now in the area. The south bank of the Patuca is the site of an organized, religiously inspired forest land colonization which began at Nueva Palestina (Smith-Hinds 1980). Since the first occupation in 1973, the population of the area has continued to grow, and the original colony is now 1 of 21 in the area. More recently, Nicaraguan rebels have occupied the area and begun land clearing for their own purposes.

In Gracias a Diós colonization seems to be in an incipient stage. In the middle Patuca valley, near the confluence of the Wampú and Patuca rivers, a major resettlement of Miskito Indian refugees from Nicaragua has been established. The upper areas of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve are the site of spontaneous colonization by both Salvadorean refugees and Hondurans. In 1988, a massive occupation and deforestation was extensively reported in the news media, involving some 15,000 settlers in that remote area.

Table 31. Population change in urban centres of Olancho

City 1974 1981
Juticalpa 10,075 18,229
Campamento 2,278 4,122
Catacamas 9,134 17,526
San Francisco de la Paz 2,291 4,145

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

Colonization activities are described in the following according to department to give an overview of the process.


Olancho is the centre of colonization activities in Honduras at present. Although the capital city of Juticalpa has existed since the colonial period, it has been isolated by bad communications networks. In 1967, the Guayape River valley was indicated as the centre of a major colonization effort (C.W. Minkel 1967), and in 1980 an allweather road connecting Juticalpa and Tegucigalpa was finished. With the construction of the road the population of urban centres grew nearly 100 per cent over a period of seven years (see table 31).

The Guayape River Valley. By 1984 the Guayape River valley had completely lost its character as a colonization area. The valley is 12 km wide by 60 km long, with reasonably good alluvial soils, and is now completely deforested; nearby mountains show deforestation on fairly steep slopes as farmers search for new lands, and the valley is a major producer of cotton and basic grains. At present a plan for the "integrated rural development" of the Guayape valley is being proposed by the Department of Hydraulic Resources of the Ministry of Natural Resourcs, but this plan is concerned mainly with the development of irrigation that will tap the enormous underground aquifers. In fact, no government official interviewed recognized Guayape as a "colonization area" in the recent past.

Although the Guayape River valley itself is not a colonization area, it is one site of a potentially important experiment in land management being carried out jointly by the Peace Corps, CARE, and SANAA (Servicio Nacional de Aguas y Alcantarillas). The project is designed to improve watershed maintenance, water quality, and water-supply through works undertaken at the community level. Peace Corps volunteers give demonstrations and lectures, but also actively participate in the implementation and construction of the management and conservation works on individual farms. The agricultural pattern for Zopilotepe, for example, was reported to be one of small farms producing corn and rice on flat valley lands, with grazing cattle on the hillsides. Activities being promoted were the establishment of river-bank hedges, efforts to create terraces on hillsides, and watershed maintenance for improved water production; agro-forestry interplanting systems with corn and Leucaena; river-bank plantations with mahogany and cedar; reforestation of hillsides with mahogany and cedar; the planting of fruit-trees; and the replacement of burning for land preparation with mulching.

The response to these initiatives was varied. The construction of terraces was not deemed to be mechanically useful, due to the exposure of soils to erosion in the construction process. Conservation works in general were not appreciated as such, but farmers were interested in reforesting with valuable timber species (mahogany and cedar) and in the improvement of the quantity and quality of available water. River-bank plantations, especially with timber species, were well received. Farmers were also interested in Leucaena plantations, probably for fuelwood. Attempts to establish orchards generally failed due to disease, but farmers were still interested in some fruittrees. Nevertheless, farmers still felt that burning was necessary for production, even taking into consideration the erosion problems it presented.

Despite the mixed results of the experiment, it represents an important step in the involvement of farmers in conservation activities on a larger scale. It must be emphasized that the personal commitment and participation of Peace Corps volunteers represents a much more persuasive model than that of the transient agricultural extension or watershed management technician. Some of the proposed conservation techniques are not mechanically functional, and others are not economically practical, but some are appealing to farmers and represent an important source of experiences for furture experiments.

The South Bank of the Upper Patuca River. The areas currently identified as "colonization areas" in Olancho are the north and south banks of the upper Patuca (Poncaya on the north and Palestina on the south) and Dulce Nombre de Culmí. The two banks of the upper Patuca offer an interesting contrast with regard to colonization. Nueva Palestina is a peasant organized colonization scheme documented most extensively by Smith-Hinds (1980). Repeated floods and droughts and land tenure conflicts in Choluteca motivated poor farmers to seek new lands in the sparsely populated lands of the Patuca River valley. In coordination with the Catholic church, local leaders from the Choluteca communities of El Corpus and Concepción de Maria made an exploratory survey in the Patuca area in January of 1973. After making another exploratory trip with representatives of INA and the UNC (National Farmers' Union), it was decided that the newly identified area could be colonized if the access road was improved. The first migration to the area occurred in April of 1973 and was made up of 83 men and 13 women.

The occupation of New Palestine marked the beginning of the establishment of several communities in the area. Before the entire colonization group could be assembled in October of 1973, however, non-community members had begun to occupy the lands claimed for the New Palestine settlement. In December of 1973, a splinter group split off from the main settlement due to a dispute over private ownership of cows and became the nucleus of Las Camelias. In 1975, two more groups were formed by new settlers, one called Nueva Esperanza (with more than 30 families) and another 20 de Mayo (with 54 families; these last figures come from Smith-Hinds [1980] and are different from those provided by INA, which records no 20 de Mayo and reports an initial population of 12 for "La Esperanza." INA reports an initial population of 38 families for "La Palestina").

There is no information on the initial population of the south bank of the Patuca, but Smith-Hinds (1980) estimates a population of 800 to 1,000 families in the late 1970s. INA records report over 500 families in 22 agrarian reform communities for 1984 but give no indication of how many other families might be found in the region. The head of COHDEFOR'S Olancho office estimated a population of 10,000 families in the area south of the Patuca (including INA and non-INA colonies), while the head of the INA office estimated 5,000 families in 1984.

The productive emphasis of the communities on the south bank is nearly exclusively on annual crops. All but one community report the production of corn, beans, and rice as their major activities' with cattle production reported in six communities and coffee in two. It is striking that, although the original communities had organized wood production teams as part of their communal activities, and in fact depended on lumber production as their major source of income, this activity seems to have completely disappeared.

The co-operative form of organization is potentially a valuable method for controlling forest destruction. Since community land is indivisible and not individually owned, it does not allow the possibility for the encroachment of large landed interests where disillusioned farmers might be willing to sell land. It also serves to control land speculation by small farmers who might want to occupy and clear land only for later sale. The presence of government services such as health, extension, and road maintenance serves as an incentive for farmers to remain associated with the cooperative.

Despite the potential benefits of the co-operative colonization strategy, it may also contain elements which promote deforestation. Residents of Nueva Palestina commented that the community served as a base for reprovisioning independent farmers of the area, and in fact may serve as a springboard for the colonization of more distant lands. Members of several co-operatives in Olancho were questioned as to the noncooperative use of lands by members; it was generally acknowledged that farmers had separate individual plots within the lands adjudicated to the co-operative, but all insisted that no lands outside the co-operative were used by co-operative members, in accordance with the regulations of INA. However, the presence of government (INA or COHDEFOR) officials at the time of the interviews makes it unlikely that members would admit to circumventing regulations. In Comayagua, outside the presence of government officials, INA co-operative members freely admitted the possession of lands outside INA co-operatives; these lands in fact were an integral part of the farmers' economic strategies, by which the land available to them in the co-operative was complemented by non-cooperative lands. While no evidence of this strategy was seen in the brief visits to the colonization areas, it does not eliminate the possibility that co-operative members in fact are opening private farms outside the co-operative in preparation for a final separation when their activities are discovered.

The North Bank of the ripperatuca River. The colonization of the north bank of the Patuca has followed a different path. Communities were established with little intervention by INA (INA only reported one colony for the area), and the major institution involved in the area was COHDEFOR, with a plan incorporating the COATLAH model. The area was originally opened for logging, followed by spontaneous colonization of the area by farmers using the logging roads. Farmers were organized into pit-sawing co-operatives to exploit remaining forest resources, and at the same time a series of swaths were cut around the area to demarcate forest protection zones. The objective of the demarcation is to indicate clearly to farmers where protected areas begin and to make control of the expansion of the agricultural frontier more manageable. The Olancho COHDEFOR office estimated 4,000 families in the area.

Communication between the north and south banks of the Patuca is very difficult. From Catacamas to the Poncaya area is a journey of seven hours, although the linear distance is approximately 35 km. The linear distance from Juticalpa to Palestina is approximately 40 km, which is generally a journey of 3 hours. The Juticalpa-Palestina road passes over several provisional log bridges which have eroded to a point that a jeep passed with difficulty. A much better road is reported to connect Patuca with Danlí.

The Agalta, Guayambre, and Gualaco River Valleys. The process of colonization in Olancho is by no means homogeneous and in fact demonstrates a certain "leapfrog" pattern. Following the new Juticalpa-San Estebán road to the north from the Guayape valley, the first valley encountered is Gualaco. Upon observation, this area seemed to be in the hands of relatively few ranchers, and little agrarian reform activity was noted, although the area had been deforested through the use of fire for pasture clearing. After the Gualaco valley, the road enters the Agalta valley, where San Estebán is located. This area shows much more agrarian activity. It is also the site of a production forest for Corfino, which is a major lumber production operation of COHDEFOR. There seems to be little integration of INA and COHDEFOR in the area.

A similar pattern of settlement is found south of Juticalpa. Before reaching Patuca, the road passes the Guayambre River valley, which is in the hands of two large ranches.


Bajo Aguán The most ambitious colonization undertaken in Honduras is Colon's Bajo Aguán in the lower Aguán River valley. Abandoned by the banana companies in the 1930s, the infrastructure of the valley had reportedly all but disappeared by the 1950s, and the remaining towns were greatly reduced in size. In 1961, the reported population was 68,000 inhabitants, despite efforts in the 1950s to recolonize the area, leading Nelson (1977) to conclude that the project had been a total failure. After 1974, the population of the valley began to increase rapidly due to spontaneous and induced colonization, and in 1980 it had reached 181,000 inhabitants. The Aguán valley covers 200,000 ha, although the entire Aguán watershed containes over 1,000,000 ha (Van Ginneken 1981).

While it is questionable whether the activities carried out in the Bajo Aguán can be characterized as "new lands settlement," the project is the show-piece of INA and deserves mention as such. Some INA officials insist that the Aguán valley had virtually reverted to forest by the time of the settlement project, although the 1961 population of 68,000 calls this observation into question. Local interviews determined that farmers and ranchers displaced by the Bajo Aguán programme moved into nearby areas, such as the coastal plains of Limón. taken over by cattle ranchers, and into nearby forest areas.

The Aguán valley is a major agricultural area. Despite an "underutilization" of the available lands, the area produces the majority of the nations' pineapple, grapefruit, and coconut, and nearly half its banana output (see table 32). In the lower Aguán valley alone, Van Ginneken (1981) reports over 149,000 ha of land with slopes of less than 10 per cent.

The development strategy for the Aguán valley has been directed toward the formation of agricultural production co-operatives to manage large farms of permanent crops such as oil-palm, coconut, citrus,etc. The statistics from table 32 indicate that in productive terms, the project has been successful. However, there have been reports of problems with the co-operative strategy employed. A large number of farmers have occupied the steeper lands surrounding the valley floor (Van Ginneken 1981), and at least some of the farmers are disenchanted cooperative memebers who have attempted to revert to individual farming on the only lands available to them (Hughes-Hallett, pers. comm. 1984). INA officials report that this problem has diminished since the permanent crops have reached fruition, increasing incomes. Nevertheless, it should be noted that abandonment is a generalized problem in agrarian reform settlements: nearly 30 per cent of the 45,000 families initially settled in INA colonies were reported to have left them by 1978 (USAID 1978).

Table 32. Agricultural production of the Agues valley as percentage of national production

Grapefruit 87.5 Rice 20.1
Pineapple 84.7 Pork 13.5
Coconut 63.1 Beef 10.8
Banana 45.5    

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

The development of the Aguán valley has been expensive. In 1978, a cumulative estimate for infrastructure in the valley (roads, marketing facilities, etc.) was over 125 million lempiras (us$1.00=2 lempiras) (USAID 1978). In terms of INA inputs, approximately 75 per cent of its resources are dedicated to Aguán activities. The Bajo Aguán project has been criticized by both farmers and others as being too paternalistic. In some cases, INA is compared to former plantation owners, with co-operative members (who are paid salaries and often feel quite powerless over their co-operatives) as the new employees of the plantation. But it is generally agreed that life on the INA plantations is much easier than life as an independent farmer on the frontier. The existence of social security benefits, transportation, urban centres, regular work hours, etc., are cited by some farmers as examples of the wastefulness of the programmes and reasons for the lack of a sufficient work ethic on the part of participants; others view these conditions as goals for the development of other communities in the area.

Río Sico-Río Paulaya-Rio Cangrejal. The eastern Atlantic watersheds of the Sico, Paulaya, and Cangrejal rivers represent some of the most important reserves of good agricultural lands in Honduras. The Rio Sico watershed is thought to contain 19.9 per cent of the cultivable land for the country, but only 1.5 per cent is used at present due to communication problems.

The area has been the focus of a major management and conservation effort funded by ACDI and carried out through COHDEFOR (Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982; Roper and Irías 1983). In addition to designing a plan for forest management, a large forest reserve area has been delineated and marked with corridors cut through the forest to indicate to farmers and COHDEFOR officials the limits of the reserve and of agricultural activity.

The programme was successful during the first five years, during which time a Canadian-Honduran agreement for forest management was in force. During a pause of several years in the project while a new agreement was being written, however, COHDEFOR'S capabilities for inspection diminished and the protected area was invaded by farmers.

The Río Cangrejal watershed of 39,700 ha has 15,000 ha of deforested land for agricultural purposes. The land is being used for migratory agricultural and, increasingly, urban development, as it makes up the head-waters of the valley where the city of La Ceiba is located, the site of the regional headquarters for COHDEFOR.

The project proposes to (1) collect land use information, (2) conduct a census by watershed, (3) prepare a map of land tenancy, (4) conduct extension services in both agriculture and forestry, and (5) relocate people who are on land inappropriate for agriculture.

As mentioned, funding for the project was arranged through ACDI, and project implemention was in its initial stages in 1988. The most remarkable aspect of this forest management project was the special attention paid to residents of the relevant watersheds, recognizing the importance of addressing their special needs and designing project solutions around forestry, hydrological, and socio-economic constraints. While this approach is clearly more complex than a strict forestry or hydrology approach, its design may permit that project achievements will not be lost in any of the lapses in project funding/implementation which are characteristic of government activities.

The management of the Río Sico area has taken on a new urgency in the past decade. A road was constructed connecting San Estebán, in Olancho, with the north coast. This road has facilitated the movement of farmers in both directions, and a farming population has quickly grown up along the new road. Previously, the Rio Sico had been a continuous natural forest area, since farmers had been physically limited in their access to the land.

Río Sico presents a fairly typical set of problems for Honduras. While some good agricultural land exists in the watershed, farmers are also clearing marginal lands (which are a majority). Farmers have begun to complain of microclimate changes in the area; it is said to be noticeably drier now than it was 10 years ago (according to their observations and memories). Whether the climatic observations are correct or not, the more general problem of declining agricultural quality is sure to be part of the future of these tropical lands.

Río Plátano. The Rio Plátano is a biosphere reserve which has not been fully established due to budgetary problems. The reserve has been threatened by immigrant colonists in at least two instances, and at present its future is not altogether secure.

Miskito Indian refugees from Nicaragua reportedly have been exploring new areas outside the resettlement areas officially designated for their use: most significantly, the upper areas of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve.

Another settlement of refugees (Salvadoreans) was set up in the area of Dulce Nombre de Culmí. This area is near the head-waters of the Rio Plátano and contiguous to the biosphere reserve. Complaints of incursions into the protected area brought an official decision to halt the occupation of the area, but COHDEFOR officials could not say whether these changes had actually been implemented or not.

In both cases, international and humanitarian pressures are creating problems for the design and implementation of appropriate land use, and no satisfactory mechanism seems to have developed to review and redirect these refugee colonization activities.

Gracias a Diós

The easternmost department of Honduras is the most sparsely populated and the least developed in terms of physical and administrative infrastructure.

The colonization of the department has been done mainly by foreigners, principally political refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua. The obvious pressures involved in settling these people has led to planning and management problems and more than a little obfuscation on the part of authorities as to what precisely has been done.

The major new settlement of refugees has been established for Nicaraguan Miskito Inidans in the middle Patuca area near its confluence with the Wampú River. The Miskitos are traditionally hunter-gatherers, with little interest in agriculture. The concentration of population in a relatively small area, however, may force a change toward agricultural production. Population estimates range from 15,000 to 30,000.

A national commission has been assembled, consisting of members of relevant government institutions, to evaluate the impact of the influx of Miskitos into Honduras and make recommendations as to how to ensure the least damaging process of settlement. One major concern is the location of the new settlements. COHDEFOR employees stated that the middle Patuca is an area extremely susceptible to land degradation and recommended investigations into the relocation of the refugees and the establishment of a much stronger support service with international funding to help ensure that the new inhabitants are able to make the land produce in a sustained manner.


A number of important experiments in land use techniques and colonization planning have been carried out in Honduras, but in general they have lacked a generalized environmental perspective which would contribute to the resolution of broad problems of environmental management in the tropics. The experience of INA in Bajo Aguán is exceptional in its breadth and scope. The agro-forestry cooperatives of COHDEFOR are unique in Latin America and offer promising solutions to certain problems. Nevertheless, there is a clear need for a co-ordinated approach to the problems of land use in humid areas which would incorporate aspects of both the INA and the COHDEFOR strategies.

The Bajo Aguán project is important as a pioneer experiment in tropical land development, in that it attempts to create a major new agricultural region. Its objective is considerably more ambitious than that of other projects of humid tropical land use, since the project has envisioned and funded an integrated agro-industrial development of the area rather than the re-creation of a subsistence farming economy. At the same time, there have been problems in the process of development in Aguán There has been some reluctance by farmers to accept the co-operative structure, and more importantly, the uncontrolled expansion of hillside agriculture in areas which endanger the valley development project indicate potential problems for this and similar projects. The Aguán project is an extremely well-financed project, so it is a valuable testing ground for alternatives; this same financial advantage may mean, however, that the methods used and the results obtained will be difficult to duplicate in other areas.

It is necessary to address the question of small-farm land use in marginal lands, such as the upper Aguán or the hillsides of the lower Aguán Despite the orientation of agrarian reform toward the colonization of flat, relatively fertile valley lands, the small farmer population has continued to grow in new colonization areas and adjacent to INA colonization schemes. This phenomenon suggests that some basic aspects of small farmer economics are not understood and that the levels of remuneration programmed for INA colonies do not completely compensate for the farmers' abandonment of their small-farm production strategy.

The urgency of the need for land use innovations has been made clear by the repeated floods suffered in Honduras. Virtually all parts of Honduras have been affected by flooding at some time. While these floods can be directly tied to exceptional climatic conditions, such as Hurricane Fifi, the actual event of flooding is the final occurrence in a long series of land mismanagements. Van Ginneken (1981) recommends that steps be taken to ameliorate the effects of cultivation in the steeper areas of the Aguán valley to avoid endangering the investments made in the valley, a recommendation which should be extended to many other areas in Honduras.

Heavy rains are the norm in Honduras, and the problems experienced in old agricultural areas are likely to be duplicated in new agricultural areas unless steps are taken to avoid the replication of problematic agricultural production strategies. During the rainy season of 1984, in September, the several major rivers of Olancho, the Guayape, Guayambre, and Patuca were observed to be extremely muddy, almost certainly as a result of farm land clearance in the upper reaches of the rivers. These areas have not reported problems of flooding, but this may be a reflection of the low population density of the area, so that flooding problems either go unnoticed or have no social economic impact.

One major failing at present is the lack of alternative strategies for production which incorporate positive soil conservation measures. Although farmers and government workers are aware of the need to utilize soil conservation techniques and incorporate "agro-forestry" techniques into their activities, there is a generalized lack of concrete recommendations or demonstrations in areas which need them. There is also a need to develop permanent crop alternatives and forestry alternatives which can be validated and recommended to farmers in the relevant areas.

Several opportunities exist at present to study the costs and benefits of watershed and soil fertility management strategies. The work being carried out in association with the Choluteca Watershed Project can serve as a field experiment to be adapted to the conditions of other areas in the country. CARE-SANAA, in co-ordination with the Peace Corps, is carrying out a project of "mirco-watershed management" in which conservation techniques are being introduced at the farm level. In Choluteca, the existence of a mulching strategy as an alternative to burning deserves attention as a possible method for improving land use techniques. All of these experiences should be carefully analysed for their possible contributions to the development of broad strategies of land management which can be introduced in new land colonization areas.

The efforts of INA and COHDEFOR in the establishment of co-operatives are also activities which deserve more detailed attention. The establishment of forestry cooperatives and communal landholding groups could be a strategy of major importance for the development of forest industries and the protection of forest resources if the economic and organizational problems which have made them unattractive to farmers in the past could be overcome. Nevertheless, no systematic review has been undertaken of the impact of INA colonies on adjacent forest areas, nor has the Sistema Social Forestal of COHDEFOR been given the attention it deserves. An especially important question to be answered is how to deal with the problem of paternalism in these types of projects. This is a major problem in the establishment of the co-operatives in the Bajo Aguán valley, where it seems to many farmers that co-operativization means no more than that they work for a large government-run corporation rather than a large foreign corporation. Implicit in the SSF strategy is the objective of giving peasants a personal interest in the maintenance and management of the forest, but if the control and ownership is seen to reside outside the co-operative members, it is unlikely that this objective can be achieved. Nevertheless, the concept of co-operativization has possibilites of being effective as a way to manage land in difficult environments, and it may represent the most viable alternative in forest management for the country. While it is clear that many mistakes have been made by both INA and COHDEPOR, they are valuable experiences which, carefully analysed, will offer suggestions as to improvements in the design of further attempts in these directions.

The lack of co-ordination between government agencies also presents a major stumbling block in the development of viable strategies for the use of humid lands. In the upper Patuca area, there is virtually no co-ordination between COHDEFOR and INA, despite the close proximity of their work areas. Forestry co-operatives officialIy are not given any extension services, and agricultural co-operatives have no forestry extension recommendations, despite their obvious need for trees, fuelwood, building materials, and land protection. The inability to establish mechanisms for the control of even the most critical watersheds in Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa is evidence of this problem of co-ordination. Efforts are now being made to improve institutional coordination, but it is inevitable that this question will arise repeatedly in regard to the complex problems of land management in the development of new lands.

Consideration must be given to how long-term land use planning decisions can be implemented and enforced within the framework of existing government institutions, so that planning obligations and enforcement responsibilities are clearly defined and the means are provided to carry out specific policies.


government institutions involved in colonization
colonization activities

the question of colonization takes on special importance in guatemala, the second most densely populated country in central america, with the largest absolute population. the population is highly concentrated in the central highlands; government sponsored redistribution of highlanders to the southern coastal area successfully relocated populations in the 1950s, and the south coast has experienced growth in the development of export crops. nevertheless, the highlands remain extremely crowded and the lowland tropical areas in the northern part of the country have been increasingly considered as an outlet for this excess population.

the major colonization effort in the north has been the franja transversal del norte (ftn). government and international institutions have made major investments in the development of the ftn, although there has been an undercurrent of environmental concern regarding the establishment of agricultural activities in this delicate ecological zone.

the other major colonization area in northern guatemala is petén, guatemala's largest department. once the centre of mayan civilization, petén has been a marginal area in the modern economic development of guatemala. its humid climate and karstic terrain presented health and agricultural problems for which no technical solutions were known. petén was put under the administration of fydep, comisión pare el fomento y desarrollo económico del petén, a singualr institution in the scope of its authority and the breadth of its activity. fydep has total and exclusive administrative control of petén, providing all normal government services, such as roads, agricultural technical assistance, agrarian reform, and colonization. nevertheless, the position of fydep is controversial, and in september of 1984 there were strong indications that it might cease to exist or that the responsibility for certain aspects of petén might revert to other government agencies.

Map 8. Guatemala: provinces and Franja Transversal del Norte land settlement area.

The focus of the land colonization investigation for Guatemala was the Bloque Chocón, the easternmost part of the FTN and the least populated sector. Chocón has been largely left aside in the process of development of the FTN; there has been a minimal presence of government institutions, including the agency for agrarian reform, especially when compared to the areas of Ixcán and Sebol, where reform activities have been most intensive. Nevertheless, there was an immediate interest in Chocón as a result of the formulation of a new plan for development of the area, called Desarrollo Rural Integrado - Izabál (DRI-Izabál, or simply DRI-I), which provided ready availability of information regarding the area.

Government Institutions Involved in Colonization

INTA- Land Reform and Colonization

In Guatemala, a decision has quite clearly been taken to subsitute colonization of new lands for land reform. It is widely recognized that land concentration is a major problem in Guatemalan agriculture and that it leads to underutilization of lands and underemployment of the rural population (BID 1977; World Bank 1978). However, effort has been concentrated on the incorporation of marginal lands into agricultural production to alleviate pressures for land reform.

In the 1940s and 1950s expropriated German farms were made available to farmers, both on the Pacific coast and in the highlands. By the 1980s, the considerable amount of land affected had long since been redistributed. On the Pacific coast, it has been observed that the reform colonies have now been transformed into fairly typical examples of Guatemalan agricultural land use, with non-owner farm management common (i.e. share-cropping, renting, etc.).

It is important to note that there is a potentially powerful agrarian reform law (Ley de Transformacion Agraria Decreto No. 1551; INTA 1981) enacted in 1962 and which contains provisions for addressing the problems of land concentration and underutilization. Unutilized lands can be legally taxed and/or expropriated. Nevertheless, these dispositions have not been carried out (World Bank 1978).

In the 1960s, a national priority was put on colonization of the humid tropical lands in the north of the country. A large project was proposed, called Sebol, which would have affected two sections of the future FTN, one at its western end (Ixcán) and the other in the centre, to the north of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Sebol). In the area of Ixcán, religious leaders had promoted a movement into new farm lands. A voluminous report was presented (Guatemala n.d.), apparently as a funding proposal, but the project seems to have been absorbed by the much larger and subsequent FTN plan.

The scope of INTA activities is constantly changing. INTA officials feel a need to be able to attend to a broad range of colonization needs to integrate the process and guarantee success. Within INTA there exist independent offices of mapping, education, statistics, etc. A 1977 international report (RID 1977) concluded that the process of colonization was most successful with a minimum of government support and recommended that activities be co-ordinated through local organizations, mentioning specifically four co-operatives: FENACOAC (credit), FECOAR, FEDECOCAGUA, and FEDECOAG (regional co-operatives work with commercial and administrative support). Apparently this recommendation was followed, because INTA officials complained in 1984 that progress in the area of Ixcán, at the western end of the FTN, had been unsatisfactory due to its being left to the local co-operatives. The control over activities in the area was by that time being returned to INTA. INTA was conceived as a broad, inclusive institution which either executes or provides for the execution of services which include the development of infrastructure, technical assistance, credit, and land titling (INTA 1984).

A major component of INTA activity is training farmers. When there was more emphasis on co-operatives, this training was focused on individual training for cooperative work (Villeda Sagatsume 1971). INTA training is now focused on preparing farmers to understand and use the agronomic recommendations made through INTA'S agrological assessment of farms.

A contrasting view of INTA'S role as co-ordinator comes from recent development plans (CRN 1984) and from the structure of the new Comités Inter-Institucionales de Desarrollo (CID). In these alternative views, either another institution (the National Reconstruction Committee) or a committee of government institutions co-ordinates the activities of the independent government agencies, including INTA.

INAFOR- National Forestry Institute

As the national forestry institution, logically INAFOR should have an important role in the process of colonization. This is not the case. INAFOR has served principally as an advisor on forestry aspects of lands to be colonized, but its recommendations do not seem to carry much weight.

In the execution of planning programme 520-T-026 (a USAID-funded project), INAFOR did a forest inventory of the FTN area in 1979 (lNAFOR 1980). At the time of the inventory, there were 500 families in the area of 467 km² that had arrived in the previous three years. The inventory discovered an alarming rate of deforestation in the area and a large percentage of land highly susceptible to erosion. In conclusion, it was recommended that some 30 per cent of the area was inappropriate for agriculture and should be left in forest reserve. In spite of this recommendation, less than 10 per cent was left as reserve in the final plan, and this only because it was too swampy to clear.

Similarly, in the recent integrated rural development project for Izabál (DRI-I), less than 2 per cent of the budget is for forestry, despite the fact that 75 per cent of all the land in the project area is classified as usable only for forestry. The participation of INAFOR in the project is said to be principally for co-ordination of charcoal production, with no mention made of the Río Dulce National Park and Wildlife Reserve, which is partly inside the Chocón area. In conversations with DRI planners, an interest was expressed in a major forestry input to the project, but this interest was not reflected in the project document.

Possibly the clearest indicator of INAFOR'S status is the existence of FYDEP. FYDEP was created to manage the development of Petén in all its aspects, and INAFOR is not included in its activities, even though Petén is one of the major remaining forest areas in the region.

INAFOR has suffered from a lack of political respect. It is seen as a non-productive body whose principal function is to do forest inventories and control the exploitation of forest areas. INAFOR'S ecology office also carries out land use analyses, but they are not used by other agencies, since many have their own offices for analysing land use. In a more positive vein, a new administration in INAFOR promises to make the institution more dynamic and to support a more aggressive policy of conservation and forest management. In 1984 INAFOR was taking an active part in the evaluation of the DRT-I plan and in developments in Petén.


ICTA, DIGESA, and DIGESEPE are the agricultural research and extension institutions for Guatemalan public sector agriculture. ICTA undertakes technology development and testing, while DIGESA and DIGESEPE are in charge of extension in agriculture and animal production respectively. These agencies do not have a specific mandate to work in colonization areas, and do so at the request of other institutions. They see their role as that of responding to requests by other government institutions for technical assistance and do not have a comprehensive technical plan which directs them to work in all areas of the country.

Of the three, DIGESA seems to be the institution most involved in the development of colonization areas. It manages a nursery at Los Brillantes on the Pacific slopes and one at Playa Grande (Ixcán) in the FTN. These two nurseries are reported to be the sources of technical information for the development of new products by other institutions (specifically, DRT-I), but information was not readily available as to the status of the work in these centres.

Colonization Activities

The Franja Transversal del Norte

The FTN is the most recently established agricultural region of Guatemala, formed by the division of the country's region II into two approximately equal sized regions, 11 and Vlll (table 33). After Petén (region 111), region VIII has the lowest population density of the country, with an area of 8,809 km² and a population of 172,704.

Table 33. General data for agricultural regions of Guatemala

Region Extension
% Nat'l


Urban Rural Indigenous Non-indig. Total
I 14,960 13.70 268,860 1,268,653 1,216,173 321,340 1,537,513 103.00
II 10,368 9.50 50,760 251,380 261,049 41,091 302,140 29.00
III 35,854 32.90 34,098 98,143 35,176 97,065 132,241 3.40
IV 12,921 11.90 248,276 824,828 - - 1,073,104 83.00
V 9,057 8.30 1,039,796 770,494 458,003 1,352,287 1,810,290 198.00
VI 8,237 7.70 133,052 454,810 72,795 455,670 - 71.40
VII 9,268 8.50 99,384 337,358 76,867 359,875 436,742 47.12
VIII 8,809 8.10 21,070 151,634 149,216 23,488 172,704 17.27
Total 109,474 100.60 1,895,296 4,157,300 2,584,772 2,966,309 - 69.11

Source: DIGESA table, DIGESA files, Guatemala City.

Table 34. Settlement profile of six communities in the FTN

Community No. of families Manzanas
Caxlampon 108 5,344
Siguanja 64 2,883
Sechaac de Tulia 94 2,750
Kaquitul 47 2,618
Poza del Danto 93 1,234
Quebrada Seca 50 906
Total 456 15,735

Source: USPADA 1982.

Agriculture in the FTN. Climatically, the FTN is composed mainly of very humid subtropical forest, with a section of very humid tropical forest at its eastern extreme. Rainfall ranges from 2,000 mm to more than 4,000 mm annually. A major problem of the area is the soil, which overlays limestone and is prone to erosion on steep slopes. Topographically, the FTN encompasses the north-eastern foothills of the central highlands and the southern end of the lowlands of Petén; most of the area is lower than 300 m.

Several preparatory studies were carried out in the FTN to create a data base for the colonization process. One of these was an AID financed investigation, 520-T-026, mentioned above, which was a reconnaissance of the western end of the FTN near the Mexico-Guatemala border (INAFOR 1980).

IICA-OAS undertook a much broader investigation, in which a series of community studies were carried out and an outline of a general strategy for colonization was prepared (IICA-OEA 1979; Reiche and Gallegos 1980). The communities chosen as case-studies were Caxlampon; Siguanja; Sechaac de Tulia; Kaquitul; Poza del Danto; and Quebrada Seca. They are fairly small communities, with a combined total of 456 resident families on 15,735 ha (see table 34).

They are traditional communities economically, as seen by the crops grown. Over 90 per cent of all the land sown is used for corn (table 35). Permanent crops are well diversified, but their combined area is equivalent to only 2.2 per cent of the area for maize production (table 36).

Despite the status of the area as one of agricultural expansion, a large amount of land was concentrated in fairly few hands. Less than 5 per cent of the population owned more than 30 per cent of all land. The process of land allocation in the FTN seems to have served to reward government supporters with land grants in underpopulated regions. Several notable clusters of small farms in peasant "parcelizations" have been established, one around Playa Grande in the western extreme of the FTN and two more in the central area near Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Nevertheless, the majority of the FTN has been incorporated into large farms, many of which are privately owned (table 37). The landholding pattern is slightly obscured by the practice of not assigning parcels to farmers but instead assigning a cooperative farm to a group of farmers, within which each farmer establishes his own work area. Whether due to a lack of political will or merely to bureaucratic shortcomings, the FTN programme has not resolved the problems of land shortage that many Guatemalan farmers face.

Table 35. Area (in mz) and production (in quintals) of annual crops by community in the FTN

Crop No. of producers







Q. Seca

Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod.
Corn 478 1878.0 27,363 307.5 4,194 232.0 2,597 379.1 4,762 440.7 7,285 176.4 2,073 342.3 6,452
Beans 340 108.1 890 38.3 347 13.5 49 15.5 156 14.3 140 8.0 25 18.5 173
Cassava 34 4.0 181 0.5 43 1.9 58 0.4 18 0.6 16 0.5 43 0.1 3
Malanga 29 2.3 82 0.3 9 0.7 17 0.5 31 0.6 12 0.1 10 0.1 3
Chilis 96 11.3 56 2.8 12 3.0 15 1.8 11 1.4 7 1.7 8 0.6 3
Rice 9 4.2 52 0.4 5 1.9 6 1.8 40 0.1 1 0 0 0 0
Peanuts 4 0.3 4 0.2 2 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sweet potatoes 1 0.1 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 3 0 0
Squash 1 2.0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2.0 2
Cilantroa 2 0.2 100 0 0 0.1 75 0 0 0.1 25 0 0 0 0

Source: USPADA 1982. a In bundles.

Table 36. Perennial crop production in six FTN communities

Crop No. of producers


All communities




Pozo del Danto


Quebrada Seca

Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod.
Sugar-cane 28 quintal 3.4 375 1.6 109 0.5 68 0.3 71 0.2 32 0.1 10 0.7 85
Malanga 36 quintal 4.5 200 0 0 2.4 117 0.3 13 0.6 19 0 0 1.2 51
Coffee 177 quintal 10.9 68 2.0 11 0.8 2 1.5 10 3.7 32 0.6 1 2.3 12
Cassava 15 quintal 0.8 26 0 0 0.3 2 0.1 2 0.4 22 0 0 0 0
Achiote 18 quintal 1.4 19 0.1 4 0.6 8 0.2 1 0.1 2 0.1 1 0.3 3
Chilis 19 quintal 1.7 15 0 0 0.7 6 0.5 4 0.3 2 0.1 1 0.1 2
Cardamom 68 quintal 1.7 12 0.1 1 0 0 0.9 6 0.4 3 0 0 0.3 2
Cacao 31 quintal 0.7 3 0.3 1 0.2 1 0 0 0.2 1 0 0 0 0
Plantain 61 raceme 4.7 1,823 0.9 484 0.8 310 0.7 248 0.9 435 0.2 100 1.2 246
Banana 64 raceme 4.9 1,190 0.1 80 0.3 150 1.0 251 2.3 435 0.3 65 0.9 209
Pineapple 94 hundreds 5.7 104 0.6 12 1.1 29 1.4 25 0.8 11 0.9 13 0.9 14
Oranges 10 hundreds 0.5 40 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.4 38
Lemons 1 hundreds 0.1 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 16 0 0 0 0
Limes 1 hundreds 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0
Avocados 1 hundreds 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0

Source: USPADA 1982. a In manzanas.

Table 37. Land tenure by farm size for six FTN communities

Farm size (mz)






P. del Danto

Q. Seca

# Area # Area # Area # Area # Area # Area # Area
>1 463 116 126 23 50 11 79 18 110 50 33 6 65 8
1-2 31 34 6 8 5 5 4 4 1 1 3 3 12 13
2-5 218 581 92 237 55 149 12 30 4 9 31 91 24 65
5-10 54 349 18 121 8 50 4 24 1 8 17 107 6 39
10-25 122 1,987 10 132 5 69 1 22 91 1,546 3 34 12 184
25-50 112 3,486 0 0 0 0 78 2,495 9 284 2 60 23 647
< 50 50 3,192 23 1,472 21 1,336 0 0 0 0 6 384 0 0
Total 1,050 9,745 275 1,993 144 1,620 178 2,593 216 1,898 95 685 142 956

Source: USPADA 1982.

Since the FTN is still an area of low population density, there is no shortage of land for farming. An ICTA sondeo determined that the limiting factors in the area were shortages of captial and labour (Ruano 1981). A shortage of capital is not uncommon in developing countries, but the situation of a labour shortage is less common. Due to a combination of bad roads and poor prices, there is little commercial production of grains and little use of day labourers; farmers must rely on a traditional labour exchange network to cultivate their corn and reciprocate by participating in neighbours' work parties. The national marketing support institution (INDECA) works in the area, but is reported to be too bureaucratic to be of use to the farmers, who most commonly sell to middlemen. As a result of the above, farmers are not motivated to intensify cropping patterns and tend to try to replace labour and capital with land. Letting land lay fallow for several years saves both labour and capital, because of the elimination of grasses from the underbrush of the secondary forest and the natural regeneration of soil fertility. Farmers try to maintain a reserve of secondary forest, because it is much easier to clear than primary forest, and rotate crops among their secondary forest plots (Carter 1969).

Cattle and cardamom are the area's main commercial products. Cattle production is a preferred activity for its low labour demand, while cardamom has commanded a good price (in recent years prices have dropped, but it is not clear if that will be permanent). There is some use of paid labour in the production of cattle and cardamom, because of their commercial value.

Agriculture in the FTN has its own special production problems. One problem is the low soil fertility; corn is commonly planted at a spacing of 1.6 m between seedlings, since closer spacings significantly reduce grain yield. Even with this measure, land can be used only a few years before it must be left fallow. Weeds are also a major problem for FTN farmers. The high rainfall promotes vigorous weed growth, and the lack of available labour or capital for the purchase of herbicides makes weed control a major limitation in land use (Carter 1969 gives a detailed description of indigenous farming practices in the FTN.



The process of colonization in Guatemala is complicated by the very size of the government bureaurcracy. Whereas in other Central American countries government bureaucracies are held to a minimal size by budgetary limitations, in Guatemala the size and relative wealth of the country has led to a proliferation of agencies with interlocking functions. A further complication is that, although a General Secretariat of Economic Planning exists to co-ordinate the activities of different institutions in the agricultural sector, some of the most important government institutions are not subject to this planning process and are, rather, directly responsible to the president of the republic (these include INTA, FYDEP, and ICTA). Agricultural sector evaluations note the problems of co-ordination which arise from this condition, as do the government agencies themselves (DRI-I personnel comment that the major problems of development in humid tropical lands are not technical but institutional). The solution to this problem has been concentration of decision-making within non-technical co-ordinating groups.

A consequence of major significance arising from the division of the government agencies into highly specialized units is that decision-making with regard to long-term planning tends to be done with little attention to technical development. For example, in the DRI-I project, INAFOR has been made responsible for charcoal production, advising on forest management and fuelwood production. These responsibilities are a reflection of INAFOR'S past activities and apparently are what the co-ordinating committee feels INAFOR is best prepared to do. Nevertheless, while there is an obvious need for innovative forestry strategies in the development of Chocón's poor soils, there is no provision in the DRI-I plan for the investigation or testing of alternative strategies. INAFOR theoretically should be developing such strategies as part of its institutional development programme, but it is generally recognized (within and outside of INAFOR) that INAFOR'S limited budget permits little beyond the accomplishment of routine obligations (between 1980 and 1984, INAFOR'S budget was reduced by more than 50 per cent, from more than us$9 million to less than us$4 million).

The fragmentation of policy and implementation capabilities has potentially devastating effects on colonization project development. For example, it was observed that, although the DRI-I project calls for the implementation of improved maize production practices on more than 2,000 ha annually, the ICTA (the institution in charge of technical development) had no research directly applicable to the area, and its personnel felt that three years of research would be necessary to establish packages for extension (DRI personnel were prepared to start with the project at any moment, as soon as funding was arranged). Similarly, little work had been done in the area with regard to cacao or rubber, although it is planned that 350 to 450 ha annually will be planted once the project begins; DIGESA is managing cacao in the central and Pacific regions of the country, but it still has not been tested or adapted for the conditions in the Izabál area.

Another major problem is the lack of evaluation of colonization experiences, although it is not clear whether this is due to the institutional fragmentation or the lack of continuity in government agencies. Policy changes correspond to changes in agency personnel, and evaluations done in these cases are internal and possibly no more than ex post facto justifications for the changes of personnel.

Colonization in Guatemala illustrates the problem of distinguishing between "directed" and "non-directed" approaches to colonization. In its initial stages, colonization in the FTN was managed by INTA, and this agency was largely selfsufficient and independent of other national institutions; this would be a fairly clear case of directed colonization. Nevertheless, the position of INTA has evolved to the point where it is one of many national institutions involved in the process of land colonization; specific services, such as agricultural extension or public works, are provided by the appropriate government institutions. It is difficult to say to what degree this latter condition represents "directed" colonization, since by all evaluations the participation of government institutions has not been organized with any clear, overall set of goals.


Patterns of Settlement
Shortcomings of Directed Settlement in Central America
Land Tenure Problems
Technical Problems of Lowland Tropical Land Settlement
Conservation Concerns in Land Settlement
Social Implications of Land Settlement
The Frontier in Latin American Popular Culture
Indigenous Technical Perspective on Lowland Settlement
Final Thoughts

This study was initiated to address the broad question of tropical lowland land settlement and its impact on the environment in Central America. While it was clear that land settlement produces profound changes in the environment through deforestation, questions remained regarding the lessons that might be learned from the Central American experience: were there strategies for land settlement or for environmental protection in the land settlement context that had been notably successful or unsuccessful? Several broad conclusions emerged regarding patterns of settlement planning and environmental protection, but what became increasingly clear was that the process of land clearance and its environmental impacts are strongly influenced by a number of additional factors: patterns of land use, which are closely related to land titling; the generalized inadequacy of available technologies, pointing up the need to develop production alternatives or possibly to "rediscover" indigenous technical knowledge which permit environmentally sound settlement of the lowland tropics; the existence of a "frontier culture" with its own environmental attitudes adapted to traditional patterns of land titling; and national and international expectations regarding broader policy questions such as equity. These factors are mentioned here in addition to the specific conclusions of this study to make clear the complex interconnections of the land settlement process to broader social and technical conditions.

The major conclusion to be drawn from the experiences of Central American colonization activities is that they have been highly successful, especially in terms of country objectives. Permanent populations have been established in previously uninhabited, or only thinly settled, areas. Remote areas have been increasingly drawn into the mainstream of national life and the national economy. The objective of political control of border regions has been less successful, due at least partly to the influence of super-power rivalries. Another political objective, the alleviation of social pressures within nations, has had mixed results.

A significant change in attitudes has been registered across the region over the last decades on the part of forest users and the public at large. The environmental damage and the problems which accompany it have come to be more clearly perceived. The goal of land clearance and settlement is no longer seen as unquestionably desirable. Nearly all national ministries incorporate a concern for ecologically appropriate management in their broad policies, and many functionaries in these ministries feel a personal commitment to the execution of ecologically appropriate policies. Sawmill owners have seen a need to address ecological questions in the face of public concern. Loggers are decidedly defensive when interviewed regarding their operations, and take pains to point out their attention to ecological detail. Farmers in some countries are at least grudgingly supportive of legislation which requires forest cover near watercourses, and there has been an impressive response by individual farmers throughout the Central American region to conservation initiatives, especially those which attempt to address immediate farmer concerns. When settlers in new lands are questioned about the ecological problems they create in settlement areas, they commonly express their own frustration, and recognition, of these problems. They complain that despite their awareness of the ecological problems, they have no economically feasible production alternatives to their current ecologically inappropriate practice.

The question now facing the new colonization areas is that of sustainability. With increasing population densities and dwindling forest resources, non-sustainable exploitation patterns must be redesigned for permanence. Resource mining strategies involving rapid deforestation for timber and capital gains from forest clearance must move toward resource regeneration and sustainable production. Innovative research and land management strategies are being implemented with this goal in mind, although none can be said to be completely successful as yet. More to the point, sincere attempts to develop sustainable land use strategies by government ministries seem to highlight the lack of information relevant for the immediate problem; it has been much easier to identify problems than it has been to identify solutions.

Central American policy makers and policy implementors must work in this environment of public opinion and national goals for economic development and for human welfare. Long-term environmental concerns must be balanced with short-term welfare for wide acceptance of a policy. And, just as in developed countries, when policy decisions can be reduced to a short-term decision between conservation or employment, public opinion swings almost invariably toward employment. Short-sighted development policies with negative environmental impacts gain public acceptance because of the lack of effective solutions to the broad sets of problems facing these countries; more effort is needed to identify and demonstrate economically effective and environmentally sound strategies to Central American constituencies. Innovative agricultural practices and policy initiatives require a certain amount of public recognition, by farmers, by banks, by land reform agencies, and by local governments, to permit financial and institutional support necessary for the development of new production activities. To the extent that innovative recommendations are seen to be experimental or unpredictable, support will decrease in favour of more "practical" traditional alternatives. While it is possible to isolate policies for land settlement or environmental management in an academic sense, realistic policy alternatives can only arise through a consideration of a broader range of influences.

Patterns of Settlement

A central question in land settlement is the extent of planning and its impact. While all Central American countries have settlement policies and agencies for their implementation, there is a great variation in the strictness with which policy is implemented. Guatemala is the country with the most centralized settlement implementation strategy, while Costa Rica falls at the other extreme, with a relatively open-ended process.

The combination of national legislation and the military presence in Guatemala's Franja Transversal del Norte has led to a close adherence to policy. While national policy has been directed to the goal of occupying new agricultural lands, the existence of guerrilla bands and the military control over the region have lent a special capability for enforcing policy. Military considerations loom large in the "development pole" policy applied in the FTN settlements, and the military presence may be a prerequisite to achieve close co-ordination among the independent minded government agencies which operate in the region.

Panama resembles Guatemala in that it possesses a centralized, comprehensive land settlement strategy for Darién. The strategy calls for the creation of a colonization office to co-ordinate the activities of the different ministries in the province and outlines a plan for socially and environmentally appropriate land settlement. Panama differs from the Guatemalan situation in the lack of any authority to carry out its settlement plan; the colonization office only existed briefly and was finally disbanded. The social and environmental recommendations made for the area have been implemented piecemeal by different government agencies with no overall co-ordination. Finally, the plan is effectively inoperative since it provides no more than an opportunity to justify agency activities with the settlement plan, with no means or obligation to carry out the full complement of necessary supporting or controlling functions.

Nicaragua cannot be easily classified, since the majority of the land settlement was carried out before the 1979 revolution, while management is carried out under current government policies. In 1984, there was no settlement policy apart from that dictated by military needs (which consisted largely of resettling Hispanic farmers and Miskito Indians to separate them from guerrillas). There was, however, a pilot project for a comprehensive management plan of the lowland humid regions which called for land consolidation and the standardized implementation of large-scale, cooperatively managed plantations of humid tropical crops. This management plan would have clear implications for settlement policy, since its objectives were optimum land use and management practices; settlement would be funneled toward, and likely restricted to, participation in co-operative plantations.

Honduras has a bimodal policy with regard to land settlement. Its show-piece for land settlement and agrarian reform is the Bajo Aguán Valley, which is a tightly planned programme built around the management of permanent crops such as oil-palm and banana. Land is managed through highly regulated co-operatives, with limited provisions for individual land use for subsistence or commercial production. However, the majority of Honduran land settlement takes place outside the Bajo Aguán in a diffuse institutional framework characterized by cross-cutting objectives and jurisdictions. "Planned" settlements may be created by agrarian reform, forestry, or agricultural agencies; these settlements usually must rely on agencies other than their "parent" institutions for complementary services. More common are spontaneous land occupations on the frontier which are later brought under the administrative authority of one agency or another.

While Costa Rica possesses a land settlement policy, its centrally designed settlement process is overshadowed by spontaneous settlement. Large tracts of forest land have been acquired by the land reform agency (ADI) for settlement, but the majority of settlements seem to be spontaneous, later to be assigned to the ADI. This is an impressionistic judgement, since neither the pattern of land settlement in Costa Rica nor the record-keeping of the ADI distinguish planned settlements from spontaneous settlements that are later incorporated into the AD! framework. But, AD' personnel are quick to point out that their ability to carry out agronomically and ecologically appropriate settlement plans is severely hampered by their frequent need to respond to and legalize invasions.

While all the Central American countries reviewed share the view that settlement planning is appropriate and necessary, only in Guatemala and Nicaragua does that view come close to realization. In both cases, the effectiveness of planning seems to hinge on an extraordinary level of centralized authority created by the existence of armed rebellions and a military presence which concerns itself with settlement patterns. On a reduced scale, Honduras has acheived a high level of centralization and planning in its Bajo Aguán settlement area, which seems to be largely a result of a concentration of international funding for national settlement efforts into that single programme. It would seem that the cost of planned programmes, either for administration or to create sufficient economic benefits to attract settlers (or possibly both), is too high to permit their regular implementation. Military or police action is the alternative to economic inducements for ensuring participation, but experience has shown that volatile communities are the final result.


None of the Central American countries has been successful in integrating land settlement and conservation concerns, despite attempts with several alternative strategies. Two broad approaches can be distinguished which parallel the different approaches to land settlement itself; one approach is an attempt at centralized environmentally oriented production planning, as oposed to a more decentralized mode.

Of the five countries reviewed, Guatemala seems to have the least environmentally informed settlement policy. Numerous national and international groups have questioned the environmental appropriateness of the FTN strategy on the basis of both climate and soil characteristics. Nevertheless, the Guatemalan government has decided to downgrade environmental concerns and follow through with the plan to settle the FTN area, both to relieve population pressure on traditional farming areas and to strengthen political control over the region. Environmental concerns are introduced into individual projects, although their somewhat haphazard design suggests superficial environmental commitment.

In contrast, Nicaragua's lowland settlement policy is couched in environmental terms, recognizing limitations in land capability and appropriate land uses. Annual crop production will be discouraged or prohibited in favour of commercial perennial crops, both to avoid environmental damage and to maximize income-generating possibilities. Plans call for only four crops, cacao, rubber, oil-palm, and coconut, to be planted in the Atlantic lowlands.

Guatemala and Nicaragua share certain characteristics in the environmental aspects of their settlement efforts, in that they attempt to plan for environmentally approprite land uses within a politico-military policy framework. More complex technical considerations are incorporated into planning, but in a subordinate fashion. The result is planning which addresses environmental concerns, but in a deficient manner; plans are generated without regard to infrastructural capacity, with the expectation that shortcomings can be erased by centralized administrative power. Long-term impacts of the plans seem not to be considered, possibly reflecting only cursory input on the part of environmental agencies or advocates. Despite the focus of both countries' plans on environmentally appropriate species, the structures of both contain the possibility for environmental disasters through well-meaning but uninformed decision-making.

At the other end of the policy spectrum, Panama, Honduras, and Costa Rica all have complex, decentralized environmental components of their land settlement efforts which suffer from overall inconsistency. The Darién region is perceived to have several potential - but not necessarily compatible - uses: (1) for the construction of a sea-level canal to accommodate larger ships than those which can use the present Panama Canal, (2) as an area for land distribution to poor farmers through the agrarian reform agency, (3) as a forest region to protect North and Central America from the accidental movement of hoof-and-mouth disease from South America, (4) as land for spontaneous colonization and economic development, and (5) for forests for lumber exploitation. While most of these potential uses are being developed through agencies within the Ministry of Agriculture, there is little coordination. Individuals or companies which encounter restrictions on their land use through any single agency can often have the same activity permitted by another; different agencies may even compete for "clients" among the frontier population as a method for validating and supporting their interpretation of the most appropriate land use. As a result, land occupation and deforestation are limited mainly by physical access to land rather than by policy constraints.

Land settlement in Honduras is framed within a set of policies nearly as complex and contradictory as those of Panama. Various agencies of the government support policies for (1) large-scale forest exploitation, (2) environmental protection, and (3) planned and spontaneous land settlement. The general socio-economic climate of Honduras is at the same time overshadowed by a significant influx of refugees from both Nicaragua and El Salvador, many of whom end up in the forest areas of eastern Honduras.

Despite its highly visible successes in environmental planning and protection, Costa Rica also suffers from a certain inconsistency in the environmental aspects of its land settlement policy. Land reform, social equity, and economic development concerns compete with forest conservation, and the success of the social and economic policies has taken a heavy toll on forests. Although AD' policy and practice respect the need to identify appropriate lands and strategies for successful settlement, higher order political priorities often derail the site and settler selection process. Nevertheless, a number of valuable policy experiments have been initiated in Costa Rica which should be considered for application in other countries, since Costa Rica's shortcomings in environmental protection seem to be a function more of its development success than of its environmental policy failure. These initiatives include the incorporation of private conservation foundations, legislative innovations such as the Regimen Forestal, and attempts to establish buffer zones around parks and involve local communities in environmental assessment and planning (these points are developed in more detail below).

A general conclusion with regard to settlement policy, then, is that environmental abuse is equally as possible in centralized as in decentralized policy environments. Centralized policy planning offers the possibility of rapid and sweeping legislative changes, but carries with it the danger of overzealous implementation of imperfectly formulated policy. Decentralized policy environments face the problem of diffusion of authority and of multiple, cross-cutting objectives. Individual agency policies, which alone may be environmentally acceptable, may have a compound effect in combination with the policies of other agencies. Or agencies may deliberately "over execute" their policies to decrease policy space for competing national agencies. A balance is required between centralized authority for co-ordination of possibly incompatible agency policies and the decentralization necessary for adaptation to specific considerations which may be overlooked in centralized policy formulation.

Shortcomings of Directed Settlement in Central America

One of the most powerful arguments for directed land settlement is that it is a means to avoid the economic and environmental pitfalls of spontaneous settlement. Settlement planning permits the provision of necessary services to settlers in isolated colonization areas, blunting the social and economic costs of settlement. It also promises to promote more durable settlements, by selecting environmentally "robust" areas which will not deteriorate under agricultural use, or, when the use of fragile lands is unavoidable, project planning can introduce appropriate land uses.

Unfortunately, directed settlements in Central America have not been notably successful in either providing especially favourable economic conditions or in avoiding environmental problems. The economic goals pursued by bureaucratic land settlement institutions, or the goals assigned to farmers by those institutions, are not always realistic; farmers frequently find the institutionally created environment too restrictive and either remove themselves completely or invent quasi-legal methods to circumvent the limitations. The farmers' circumventions of land settlement plans are frequently in critical areas, such as titling and farm residency requirements or in patterns of land use, so that their introduction is antithetical to the objectives of the sponsoring institution.

While the goal of close direction of settlement for environmental protection seems necessary for avoiding excessive environmental damage, the Central American experience demonstrates the weakness of that strategy. Land settlement institutions can easily be "kidnapped" by authorities with other than environmental priorities, presenting frightening possibilities to use environmental institutions to do environmental damage.

Land Tenure Problems

A fundamental problem for Central American farmers is the establishment of secure tenure over their land. This is not a problem restricted to small landholders or even to landholders without formal titles. All land is subject to the usufruct orientation of land legislation, and, as a result, land management strategies have been developed which address the problem. In Costa Rica, Seligson (1980) reports that only 75 per cent of all farms have legal titles, and census information in other Central American countries suggests titling rates as low as 20 per cent. Even in Costa Rica, some 90 per cent of remote farm lands are thought to be untitled. Of the 34,000 farms adjudicated by the ADI, many are still not titled due to the policy of withholding titles.

The usufruct orientation produces what is commonly referred to by Central Americans as "land speculation," by which land is occupied with the primary objective of obtaining marketable possession rights. "Speculating" farmers may occupy land for fairly short periods (several months to several years), initiating "improvements" on the land which enhance their possession claims and sale price. These improvements usually include fencing, land clearance, and the establishment of crops and pasture on as large a portion of the farm as possible. The pattern of occupation and farm establishment is virtually indentical for the speculator and the genuine colonist. In a historical sense, land use legislation in this case works exactly as it should; it encourages the establishment of new farm land. This "speculation" is an important part of the settlement process. The first settlers in an area validate the land claim by their presence and, in many cases, will resolve initial ownership challenges; these challenges often lead to violence against squatters or to their imprisonment. Such challenges can be met, however, through political organization: squatters may associate themselves with local political movements which have legal or political resources to influence local authorities. Local political movements usually have their own political agenda which farmers endorse as a quid pro quo for their support.

A relatively small number of spectacular misuses of the land tenure/land reform system have had a significant impact on attitudes toward land settlement. In a few notorious cases, poor farmers have occupied relatively unintensively managed farms which were subsequently purchased by the land reform agency, only to sell the parcels back to the original owners within a few years. There have also been cases of large landowners who, wanting to sell but finding no buyers, manipulate the land reform agencies into purchasing the farm. Accusations of fraud appear at different levels: landowners and farmers may collude to have a farm "invaded" to obligate the intervention of the reform agency, or influential landowners may be able to have the purchase of their farm for land reform purposes be given higher priority than other farms; or, once a farm is selected for land reform, the price will be unrealistically elevated, possibly through the collusion of officials within the land reform agency. A public outcry has accompanied these revelations, where both poor and wealthy farmers seem to manipulate land reform legislation and agencies for short-term gains at the expense of the national treasury. Similar concerns are voiced in all Central American countries, and land settlement efforts are usually accompanied by background checks of beneficiaries; land rights are often granted with "impaired" titles which limit farmers' rights to sell land; land may be granted either in co-operative, non-divisible, or non-salable units; major purchases of farms are subjected to of ficial and unofficial public scrutiny to detect collusion and fraud.

Land settlement and land reform are legally and institutionally interwined. The same usufruct pattern of landholding applies in both established farming areas and in colonization areas, with the difference that in traditional farming areas, agricultural practices are more intensive, farms are smaller, and, as a result, usufruct usurpation is less likely. The same institutional framework addresses the problems of land tenure in colonization areas and agrarian reform in traditional areas. Agrarian reform adjudication of land invasions often involves offers of uncontested, frontier lands for squatters as an alternative to the legal problems associated with expropriation or purchase from the legal owner. In new agricultural areas, squatters on national land usually look to the agrarian reform agency to support their claims against challenges. Most importantly, the experience of "land speculation" in traditional agricultural areas has caused reform institutions to adjust their guide-lines for settlers to avoid the informal title establishment and transfer process.

The negative publicity surrounding cases of land settlement fraud obscures important positive aspects of the land distribution process. Frontier farmers accept high risks in return for economic opportunity. Sewastynowycz (1986) documents how colonizing farmers build up their working capital through successive land sales of "sweat equity" in newly cleared lands, followed by reinvestments in lower priced lands. In the course of a lifetime, pioneer farmers may move from poverty to levels of relative wealth. Land settlement has also resulted in a significant distribution of real wealth (in land) to large numbers of poor farmers, even in the cases where these farmers have not been able to make spectacular changes in their incomes. Research among beneficiaries of land settlement/land reform in Costa Rica has found them to be highly satisfied with the overall experience, despite their recognition that the government institutions did not supply expected levels of support (Seligson 1980); in the majority of cases, settlers felt their lives had improved significantly. Most importantly, a large number of farmers have been benefited by the agrarian reform process; documents from Costa Rica's AD! record the allocation of nearly 1 million ha to more than 34,000 families, in a country of less than 102,000 farms.

The institutional response to problems of land settlement fraud has been a series of policies which, to a certain extent, contribute to the landholding confusion of the region. Nearly all colonization programmes are very slow in transferring title; fixed periods may be set when titles will finally be awarded, with the expectation that this will encourage permanence. But rather than discourage land transfers, the effect has been that farmers in settlements must rely on the traditional methods of land transfer, especially letters of sale. In themselves, these letters have little legal validity apart from the demonstration of the settler's monetary interest in the property and as a means to establish their period of residence. Implicit in many land transactions is the recognition that the farmer has no legal claim over the land; farmers talk of "selling improvements" rather than "selling the land" when they transfer their farm. At the end of the "probationary" tenure period, the reform agency finds itself with the uncomfortable decision of whether to award title to the possessor of (illegal) letters of sale or leave the settler without permanent title. Darién, in Panama, promises to be a legal nightmare whenever an attempt is made to regularize titles, since a large number of colonists have settled in legally prohibited areas.

In principle, a limitation on landownership would seem to offer an ideal means to control land settlement and land use through the power to revoke control over illegally occupied land. Insecure farmers might be expected to be more anxious to comply with land management regulations in an effort to avoid loss of access, introducing the possibility for avoiding environmental problems through the application of appropriate land use recommendations on new farms. This is not the case. Authorities often do not have sufficient resources to apply sanctions, since that would require either a strong and constant police pressure to enforce legislation or a set of sufficient inducements to lure farmers away from restricted areas or practices. Cases were cited in Costa Rica and Honduras where officials unsuccessfully attempted to dislodge settlers or to influence their patterns of land management. Given their lack of alternatives, farmers are usually more tenacious in breaking the laws than the authorities are in enforcing them.

The most negative argument in this regard can be seen in Honduras. Registration problems lead to the near universal pattern of extra-legal landholding. In addition, national legislation assigns the right to manage or harvest all trees in the country to COHDEFOR, the national forestry development agency. Far from resolving the problem of uncontrolled settlement and land clearance, this arrangement seems to exacerbate it. COHDEFOR leads a constant battle against forest fires, many of which are thought to be set by disgruntled farmers in protest. This is not an entirely symbolic gesture; once forests have been eliminated, COHDEFOR loses interest in the land, and farmers may take control (see esp. Murray 1981). Surveys of agro-forestry practices on Central American farms have demonstrated that Honduran farmers are much less likely to manage trees of any kind on their farms.

An alternative solution has been proposed in revolutionary Nicaragua, where land owership and control is passed to the government as part of a collectivization campaign. This solution is appealing in that tight controls and nation-wide integration eliminate the necessity for the production of ecologically inappropriate annual grain crops in humid tropical zones. Small farmers are not forced to make production decisions on the basis of short-term market considerations or concerns with tenure security, as happens in other countries. An inherent disadvantage in this approach is the possibility that an inappropriate ecological solution will be mistakenly identified, either through overcentralized controls over planning or due to limitations in knowledge regarding the longer term consequences of that strategy. The implementation of large-scale cacao, coconut, and oil-palm plantations may represent a threat equal to or more serious than that currently posed by disorganized peasant settlement and land exploitation. * The conversion of diverse tropical forest into a much more homogeneous plantation regime also increases the possibilities of catastrophic pest or disease attacks.

Problems of land security also directly contribute to inefficiency in farm management, since they eliminate the possibility of using land as collateral for agriculural loans. Banks recognize the instability of land tenure and will only accept land as collateral on farms which have been legally titled. Cattle, on the other hand, are readily seen as collateral, since their ownership can be more readily established and they are less likely to become frozen assets in legal proceedings. Nevertheless, cattle production is usually not very efficient; many other crops permit a more intensive use of land and higher rates of return on investments. But cattle are the most readily accepted collateral for farmers without title, and most farmers quickly acknowledge their interest in acquiring cattle as a farm improvement strategy.

A combination of factors conspire to retard regional development in land settlement areas. The value of farms and the ability of a farming region to support infrastructural development are proportional to the productivity of the region. Income provides a tax base and individual wealth which can be used for private infrastructural development. Without access to loans, the cycle of regional development is slowed to the rate of accumulation of poor farmers on isolated farms, as the development of roads, water, electricity, schools, and other public services must be financed out of farmer savings. Under these circumstances, farmers" highest aspirations are to clear land for cattle to provide collateral for future sustainable production. The cultivation of permanent crops, which might be more appropriate for the region and more profitable over the long run, remains a vague, future plan for most farmers.

Cattle provide one of the easiest means to occupy a farm. Once land has been cleared and fenced, grazing cattle will keep it clear with relatively little assistance from farm workers. Occasional weed control can be carried out by manual or chemical means, and the number of workers required to manage cattle is low. Given the priority of active use to validate land claims, cattle production is a low-cost means of "title insurance," with the dividend that it also generates a little income.

The dynamics of land titling are an integral part of Central American land settlement and land use patterns. Discussions of long-term patterns of use, appropriate and inappropriate techniques or activities, etc., are relatively meaningless if they do not recognize the fundamental problem of gaining and maintaining possession of farm land. The positive impact of positive land reform and land titling efforts in Central America on environmental questions cannot be overestimated.


Technical Problems of Lowland Tropical Land Settlement

It is now widely recognized that tropical lowlands require special agricultural strategies to guarantee their productivity and the sustainability of production. What is less widely appreciated is the difficulty of identifying productive and sustainable systems which are profitable for farmers. Farmers of Central America's lowland frontiers are endlessly creative in their testing of new crops and production strategies, and surprisingly undaunted by failure. Discussions of management strategies with farmers quickly elicit stories of ambitious failures, as well as a pattern of anxious searching and comparison of experiences with neighbours, experts, and visiting researchers. The image of the "traditional" Latin American farmer unwilling to innovate bears little resemblance to the reality of lowland settlement in Central America.

Most of the settlers in tropical lowlands come from drier environments, and they bring their food preferences along with their cropping strategies to the new lands. The production of annual crops such as corn and beans is widespread in tropical lowlands as a result. Farmers will be the first to point out that the new lands are inferior to their old lands for the production of these crops. New strategies are devised to permit the production of grains, and the farmers begin to plant new crops, such as roots and tubers. Unfortunately, the majority of the population in Central America shares the climatic background and taste preferences of the dry Pacific lowlands, so there is a low demand for humid tropical food crops. The one outstanding exception is plantain, and the land setlement areas of Panama and Costa Rica, especially, have become the major producers of plantain for the national markets.

Technically, there are a great variety of lowland tropical crops which are ecologically appropriate and sustainable. Tropical fruits exist in varieties and numbers bewildering to temperate consumers (Popenoe 1920). Many spices are native to these environments, as are food crops such as bread-fruit (Artocarpus sp.), peach palm (Guilielma gasipaes), yuca (Manihot sp.), taro (Colocasia sp.), sweet potato (Ipomaea sp.), malanga (Xanthosoma sp.), and others. Tropical environments have a distinct advantage over temperate environment forest production: woods of exceptional quality can be produced àt rates superior to those found in temperate zones due to the permanently warm and humid conditions of the tropics. Recent work has demonstrated the feasibility of agroforestry combinations as a strategy to maximize production of annual or perennial crops and guard against environmental problems in tropical environments.

Unfortunately, the successful identification of ecologically appropriate crops for the tropics has not been matched in the identification of marketing strategies. The tropical lowlands of Central America are filled with production experiences abandoned due to the lack of markets - including passion-fruit, pepper, heart of palm, tropical tubers, citrus and ginger, to name only a few. Research and extension personnel have observed countless cases of abandoned plantations, unharvested products, and the reversion to annual crops or pastures as ecologically appropriate alternatives are abandoned in a search for income-generating activities. Marginal success has been achieved with cardamom, but its initial success has inspired widespread imitation which threatens to swamp the world market. Otherwise, recommendations for ecologically appropriate strategies are made with the implicit assumption that farmers will accept less-profitable strategies in view of their increased ecological efficiency. Unfortunately, the ecological benefits of such strategies (e.g. watershed protection or maintenance of species diversity) are often so diffuse or so far removed geographically, that they have little if any impact on the farmers. Such strategies will only work if such diffuse "social" benefits are somehow returned to the farmers who produce them.

Although it seems contradictory, the achievement of long-term sustainability in the lowland tropics depends on the development of markets for products appropriate to that environment. As developing areas, tropical countries are continually searching for income-generating alternatives. Until recently, it seemed to be generally acknowledged that resource mining was the only way to obtain income from lowland tropical environments. Ecologically inappropriate products such as cattle, corn, and beans were introduced to respond to national and international tastes, despite their tendency to degrade land quality, while ecologically appropriate crops, especially timber, were eliminated due to their lack of market appeal. Recent environmental concerns have tended to confirm the view that tropical lowlands are a liability whose only function would be to serve as the "lungs of the earth" or a repository for (currently unproductive) genetic diversity. Both perspectives overlook the growing importance of tropical lowlands in an economic sense: as temperate soil resources become overburdened with demands for food and living space for growing populations, the tropics and new tropical products will be increasingly necessary. Improved international transportation promises to open new possibilities for marketing of even more delicate tropical fruits. It is self-defeating to make the error of identifying these new lands as inferior replacements for temperate lands. The key to the ecologically appropriate use of these lands is an integrated strategy which (1) addresses ecological and productive problems and (2) ensures that ecologically appropriate production patterns generate a livelihood for farmers. Efforts in the past have been much better at addressing production problems than the parallel problems of marketing and processing. The agrument that the formation of an organization of timber-exporting countries to maintain higher prices internationally would have a beneficial ecological impact is very persuasive and should be incorporated into plans for Central American forest management and conservation (Guppy 1984).

A fundamental refocusing of effort will be necessary to ensure a more rational approach to lowland tropical land use. More emphasis must be given to the identification and use of species and production techniques which are primarily suited to tropical lowlands, less emphasis to the adaptation of temperate, arid land production species and strategies to the new environment.

Conservation Concerns in Land Settlement

The suggestion that tropical forest lowlands be settled for commercial production presents obvious conflicts with a conservationist perspective. While ecologically appropriate and economically feasible strategies do address the problems of the carbon cycle and erosion for the lowlands, they do not address the problem of species conservation; deforestation for commercial crops will eliminate both plant species and animal species which may be of great potential use.

The most obvious solution to the problem of species conservation is the creation of parks and biological preserves where human activity will be legally limited. Unfortunately, this solution is of limited applicability in developing countries due to its costs. Reserved areas require direct government expenditure to maintain a staff and infrastructure to oversee the protected area. These areas also have "opportunity costs," the value of the production of lumber, animals, or agriculture foregone by protecting them. Developing country governments, with a few very notable exceptions, tend to favour production over protection and allocate most national resources to activities which promise demonstrable short-term benefits or avoid short-term disasters.

A number of innovative solutions to the conservation question are being implemented in Central America. Several of these solutions are strongly tied to international efforts. The best-known and best-documented one is the "debt for trees" swap, whereby international debt is "paid" by the debtor country's allocation of reserve lands. Funds freed by the debt forgiveness can be used to manage the reserved lands.

Another example of such international co-operation in conservation is the participation of non-governmental organizations in the collection of international funds to finance conservation activities. Such activities have been especially well developed in Costa Rica. One method is the outright purchase of land for conservation purposes. Guanacaste National Park is presently being formed entirely through international donations (Holder 1986). A complementary activity, and one of probably more longterm significance, is the establishment of the National Park Foundation (NPF) for the purpose of collecting operational funds for the management of protected areas. The NPF is tied operationally to national institutions, but is financially independent. Its funds may (or may not) be used to finance activities of government agencies such as the National Park Service or to contract independently for either personnel or infrastructural development within protected areas. The NPF began a project in 1987 which directly involved it in the establishment of agricultural "buffer zones" around parks; the theory behind such buffer zones is that parks can only be protected in the long run by ensuring that neighbouring farmers will not be driven by poverty into protected areas (Brown 1988; World Wildlife Fund 1988). A similar effort being undertaken but still in a growth phase is through the Asociación Hondureña de Ecologia. The AHE is involved in a number of conservation activities, especially the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the Mosquitia of Honduras.

The relationship between a private organization and government agencies is fraught with difficulties, especially when the private organization has a much higher funding level than the government agencies. Jurisdictional disputes, jealousies, and policy questions continually arise and require able management to avoid escalation of these conflicts to a point of impairing overall efficiency. Despite the organizational inefficiency of such parallel arrangements, this structure results from international doubts concerning government agencies and financial management: donors are often dismayed by high levels of overhead costs in government services or by the problems in specifically targeting impacts for their funding. The private voluntary organization provides an institutional framework which permits a closer accountability for funds and, consequently, has been extremely successful in capturing international donations.

At the same time, innovative approaches to problems of conservation are being taken within governmental organizations and national legislatures. In Honduras, national legislation designed to increase institutional control over forest areas has had a negative impact on private forestry, due to the elimination of private incentives to manage forest areas. Virtually all forests are the property of COHDEFOR; little provision is made for plantations or individually managed forests. Farmers complain bitterly about COHDEFOR'S appropriation of forests. COHDEFOR has legal jurisdiction over both private and public property, and where farmers do not hold formal titles; COHDEFOR is not obligated to make any compensation; further, the compensation of usufruct-holding nonowners of public lands would probably be difficult to sustain legally. However, COHDEFOR is experimenting with the use of forest production contracts between farmers and the institution; these contracts recognize farmers' rights and obligations in tree production. Farmers must follow COHDEFOR technical recommendations for a specified period of years before they are allowed to harvest, but they will own all, or nearly all, of the production and be the sole owners in terms of harvest or sale decisions once they comply with production specifications.

Costa Rica's Regimen Forestal is a new forest management category which attempts to overcome negative incentives introduced by the usufruct land tenure law. Large landholders, and especially sawmills owning forest tracts, have in the past been discouraged in forest management by the possibility that forest lands would be invaded by squatters. This eliminated any incentive to invest in improved forest management, such as selective harvest, the maintenance of reserves, or the establishment of technically rational harvest rotations, since all investments could eventually be lost if the land was invaded. The Regimen Forestal provides a legal framework within which forest can be managed under loose direction by the National Forestry Directorate; inclusion in the programme requires certain management standards on the part of the landowner, but it provides immunity to land invasion, since the land is formally recognized as "utilized," despite the standing forest.

The Regimen Forestal follows a less successful attempt to provide fiscal incentives for forestry through the provision of tax certifications for companies or individuals who reforested. Unfortunately, no provision was made for the initial status of land to be incorporated into the fiscal incentive programme, and there were complaints that standing forests were felled to make way for plantations. This fiscal incentive strategy also presented deficiencies in the make-up of the participant population. Since relatively few Costa Ricans have tax liabilities which could be cancelled through the reforestation programme, the programme tended to become a fiscal tool for large corporations which otherwise had a minimal interest in land management or forestry production.

A number of apparently unsuccessful policy innovations can also be cited in the area of conservation. Honduras has experimented extensively with strategies to direct interactions between human populations and forests. One strategy used in Honduras as well as in other Central American countries has been the withholding of title from settlers for a specified period of time to discourage settlement for "speculative" purposes followed by further forest settlement. This strategy has not produced the desired results: settlements have tended to be poor and to transform themselves into jumping-off points into remaining standing forest. However, it would be valuable to do a careful analysis comparing the stability of settlers in spontaneous, usufruct possession colonies with that of settlers in schemes with impaired titles.

The Social Forestry System in Honduras represents another promising innovation. Pitsaw agro-forestry co-operatives present a method for motivating local residents to conserve forest resources by involving them in forestry income. Furthermore, these groups are characterized by certain technical advantages: Hand sawing offers finer cuts and so less wastage than mechanical sawing. The close control of COHDEFOR tends to discourage "high grading" of forest stands (i.e. extracting only the most valuable logs and parts of logs) and the destruction of low-grade or young trees. The focus on hand sawing may limit the rate of deforestation in the areas controlled by the agro-forestry cooperatives by keeping down the rate of processing and motivating co-operative members to help enforce COHDEFOR'S forest management laws. The co-operatives represent a limited success at best, since they are minimally involved in forest regeneration or longterm land management, but the model deserves careful study.

To date, the Costa Rican conservation experience seems to be the most promising. The combination of private innovations and a concerted government policy seems to offer the most hope for long-term success in conservation for tropical areas. The initiatives mentioned had only a tangential impact on new settlement patterns, but the positive advances in conservation and public awareness and involvement seem to lay a solid groundwork for the development of sustainable land management strategies in humid lowlands.

Social Implications of Land Settlement

A fundamental question arising from the experience of land settlement is whether this process has contributed to a genuine social and economic development of the countries concerned or whether it has served merely as an escape valve for social pressures. A major critique of the land settlement efforts in Latin America arose out of the perception that these were promoted to comply with the letter of the Punta del Este agreement for continent-wide land reforms, without effectively redistributing the best lands which were then under cultivation (Domike 1970; Dorner 1972). Another objection to the process of land settlement was that it did not attempt to create new, more equitable agrarian situations, but merely recreated existing unequal distribution patterns in new areas. Both accusations are true to a certain extent and should be considered carefully.

In a fundamental sense, land settlement is not an activity for the poor. Although "free" access to public lands would seem to be highly egalitarian, the final effects of new land settlement have a tendency to favour the wealthy. The establishment of a farm in "virgin" territory is an expensive undertaking which is unlikely to yield economic returns over the short run. The earliest stages of farm development involve extensive infrastructural development, in both the clearing of land and the establishment of on- and off-farm infrastructure, such as houses, farm buildings, fences, and roads. Community development requires expenditures for the construction of public buildings and payments for the services of teachers, doctors, police, etc. Consequently, wealthier farmers in new settlement areas tend to be more successful than poorer ones, just because of the initial advantages of having working capital (James 1983; Bunker 1982). Similarly, both in Honduras and in Panama, wealthier settlers (be they individuals or logging companies) are reported to employ poorer settlers as land clearers, to the extent that the poorer settlers end up with no property rights, as they must dedicate nearly all their time to wage activities rather than to the development of their own farms.

Much to their credit, Central American countries have designed programmes which permit, and in many cases require, the participation of poor farmers. In most countries, significant efforts are made to ensure that wealthy individuals do not become beneficiaries in land settlement programmes, through a process of colonist selection and background checking. Flagrant violations of that principle seem to have taken place in pre-revolutionary Nicaragua, and examples can be cited in other countries in the region, but these seem to be exceptions. *

There is a generalized perception, especially in the international community, that lowland settlement has not been justified in terms of costs and benefits; the primary benefits are seen to be political, removing desperate landless farmers to remote areas of questionable agricultural value. On an individual level, the new settlements at times do not meet expectations and settlers quickly decide to return to their places of origin. At a national level, the broader implications of lowland development in terms of international markets and national environment problems have been cited as demonstrations of the futility of land settlement (LaFeber 1986). One can extend this analysis even farther, noting how colonization areas have become centres of guerrilla activity, suggesting that colonization experiences are extremely alienating and generate profound social discontent.

Nevertheless, various studies show that land settlement has been largely successful throughout Latin America in satisfying farmers' needs for a better life. Seligson (1980) found the majority of agrarian reform beneficiaries (many of whom had been relocated to lowland tropical zones) to be satisfied with their experience in the reform; Findley (1988) arrives at a similar conclusion for Latin America as a whole. Lowland settlement has lived up to its expectations from the perspective of Latin Americans.

The Frontier in Latin American Popular Culture

The frontier experience has left a lasting imprint on the agricultural society of Central America. Stanley Heckadon Moreno's (1983) description and analysis of the "pasture culture" in Panama rings true for other Central American countries and seems to be echoed in the "perpetual pioneer" cited by Findley (1988) for Latin America as a whole. Heckadon Moreno's work illustrates how the "pasture culture" permeates Panamanian rural life, with individual worth being demonstrable through the capacity to clear land and personal goals being defined in terms of pasture land possession, independent of economic considerations. The attitude of these poor farmers is similar to that traditionally assigned to the Latin American upper classes, wishing to surround themselves with the trappings of gentlemanly grandeur through the possession of large cattle ranches. The attachment to the concept of agricultural grandeur is particularly ironic in Panama, where agriculture places far behind commerce and banking as a generator of wealth. While it cannot be denied that there are economic motivations involved in the desire to possess or create pasture, the special characteristic of the pasture culture is that it prescribes pastures even beyond the limits of economic or ecological rationality.

The process of social change in Central America has been accelerated. The ethnic stability associated with highland Guatemala is clearly the exception rather than the rule. Social and economic changes are introduced as part of national level policies, some of which are decidedly social welfare oriented. Omar Torrijos's efforts to change Panamanian society through restructuring of the agricultural sector are being recreated in Nicaragua on an even more far-reaching scale. Nevertheless, rural change is not restricted to "revolutionary" regimes; the deepening of the market economy in Central America brings with it fundamental changes, as "subsistence" farming vanishes in the face of growing markets for farm products and the near universal availability of commercial outlets (Barrett 1982). Population growth and resettlement have had an impact on even the most traditional populations (Carter 1969).

Strikingly, there is a constant effort to recreate the community in new settlement areas. Land settlement often attracts fellow community members or family members, who settle together in new areas (Carter 1969; Jones 1988). This re-creation of the traditional community has the express purpose of regenerating old social relations and patterns of mutual support.

In some cases, new communities are formed with a distinctly utopian objective. Most directed or partially directed settlement schemes promote communal organizations, in the form of either production co-operatives or paternalistic state-run "community enterprises" (e.g. the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras). A few of these utopian schemes have an expressly religious orientation, as was the case of Nueva Palestina in southern Honduras (Smith-Hinds 1980). This utopian orientation is highly reminiscent of the mission settlement organization of the early Christian orders in the New World, especially in the belief that a new moral order must be imposed on participating individuals to guarantee both personal improvement and economic success. Interestingly, this focus is not restricted to resettlement but has been applied to land reform efforts in most countries, especially in Panama, as mentioned above, and more recently in Nicaragua.

Indigenous Technical Perspective on Lowland Settlement

In the course of occupying new environments, Central American settlers have had to experiment with alternative crops and production strategies. These experiments have in the past, and may still in the future, serve as an orientation for agronomic research. Paul Richards's work in Africa (1985) and Gene Wilken's work in Central America (1987) demonstrate the depth of indigenous technical knowledge of local crops and the possibility of engaging this background knowledge as a basis for further, locally appropriate agronomic research. Although it might be suggested that the recent immigrants to Central America's humid zones would not have had sufficient time to develop a comprehensive indigenous knowledge system regarding the minute details of local conditions, a number of innovations can be observed.

One concept to come out of the humid areas is that of "minimum tillage." Fields are cleared and burned and crops planted with a dibble, used only to create holes to receive seeds, with no further cultivation. This strategy is only striking when compared with the European tradition of plowing to improve soil structure and control weeds. Early attempts to plow in humid environments were believed to represent a technical improvement over existing systems; it is now widely recognized that plowing tropical soils is destructive and inefficient and that variations on the local systems of planting are more appropriate given ecological conditions. More recently, attempts have been made to "improve" on minimum tillage through the introduction of chemical defoliants, rather than relying on fire, although there are still questions whether even this represents an overall improvement in the management of the ecological system.

Fertility enhancement techniques are of great interest in tropical areas, since soils often are deficient in their fertility maintenance capability. In Guatemala, settlers were found to use velvet bean to shorten fallow periods. This represents a significant departure from more common fallowing techniques which relied on natural regeneration and locally occurring species for their fallow vegetation. The use of this innovation seems to be spreading slowly throughout the north-eastern part of the FTN; Carter (1969) reported its use 20 years ago, but farmers in 1984 insisted that in their area the practice had been introduced only recently. Users of this technology emphasize another benefit, in addition to fertility maintenance, and that is its effectiveness in controlling weeds. Weed growth is a principal problem in lowland tropical areas; the absence of a "dead" season, in which weed growth is eliminated, means that weeds nearly always have an advantage over sown crops. Velvet bean eliminates all germinating weeds and prevents the setting of seeds and runners; farmers report that this characteristic, even more than its impact on fertility, explains how velvet bean fallows permit more frequent cropping cycles.

DeWalt et al. (1982) reports on a soil management technique which may be of significance for colonization areas. The technique is reported for the dry, well-settled region of Choluteca, but Choluteca is the source of many current migrants to humid colonization areas, and they may be expected to take this method with them. The technique consists of mulching as a substitute for burning brush from fallow periods. Such a technique presents obvious problems of fungus in a humid area, but it may be adapted to specific crops or areas even in a humid environment.

What may be a more significant contribution from the Central American tropics is agro-forestry. The concept of agro-forestry has existed for some time in the scientific literature (King 1968); the integration of tree crops with annual or perennial agricultural crops was thought to offer significant benefits in terms of sustainability and cost effectiveness. Central America is one of the first areas where economically viable agroforestry systems were described, and these systems were developed nearly entirely on the basis of local farmer experimentation and adaptation (Gordon 1969; de las Salas 1979). Agro-forestry was not invented by modern Central Americans; Spanish explorers commented on the extensive management of tree gardens, and the agro-forestry relationship of Gliricidia sp. to cacao has been immortalized in one common name for the species, madre de cacao ("cacao's mother"). The use of shade trees for perennial crops was extended from cacao to coffee in the nineteenth century and represents a highly sophisticated management technique which continues until the present. Recent research has been investigating the possibility of recreating now extinct agro-forestry systems as a tool for development of humid tropical areas (Gliessman et al. 1981).

An adaptation of the cacao-Gliricidia relationship is seen in the introduction of lumber species into perennial crop plantations. Of immediate interest is the use of Cordia alliodora for supplementary shade in cacao plantations in lowland humid areas (Rosero and Gewald 1979). A similar pattern can be seen in drier areas (Heuveldop and Espinoza 1983), and the pattern of migration from drier to more humid areas suggests the possibility that the two techniques are not entirely independent.

Cordia alliodora has also been used in combination with pastures in humid areas (Rosero and Gewald 1979). Until quite recently, Cordia was not regarded as an appropriate species for lumber, but appreciation for it has grown in recent years, and farmers responded by introducting it into their production systems.

One potentially rich source of indigenous technical knowledge for lowland settlement is that of the pre-Hispanic natives of the region. The combination of native depopulation and the Hispanic preference for temperate and semi-arid environments led to a virtual abandonment of the humid tropical zones of Central America, and the loss of the relevant technology. One technology lost was genetic: the abandonment of the Central American humid regions almost certainly resulted in the loss of plant varieties adapted to humid conditions. While it is commonly observed that corn and beans do not prosper in humid environoments, this observation most likely reflects the attempt to use varieties adapted to drier environments; humid lowland environments were major food producers at earlier times in history (GómezPompa 1980-1981). Another technology lost was that of lowland agricultural engineering; recent work has demonstrated the existence of extensive irrigation, mounding, and drainage systems in the lowland areas of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize (Pohl 1985; Gómez-Pompa 1980-1981). Modern agriculturalists tend to shun these areas as unmanageable, despite their high potential for production under proper management practices. The "rediscovery" of pre-Hispanic production systems may change perceptions of "appropriate" uses for lowland areas (Gliessman et al. 1981).

Farmer interest in commercial tree species has been noted throughout colonization areas of Central America and may represent yet another land use avenue to explore. In Guatemala, farmers tap copal to sell in the national market; it is used in traditional religious ceremonies. In Honduras, resin from the liquidambar tree (Liquidambar styraculfolia) has been tapped in settlement areas, although the practice has been inconsistent due to problems of price stability. Honduran colonists are very appreciative of forest lumber species, especially mahogany (Swietenia spp.), since many engage in logging, with either chain-saws or handsaws. A similar interest was expressed in Panama's Darién; university researchers are undertaking studies to promote agroforestry systems, with species appropriate for lumber. The integration of existing interest in forest species into economically viable agro-forestry systems will greatly contribute to the establishment of sustainable, environmentally appropriate systems in the future.

Finally, through their own determination farmers have developed strategies for fighting plant disease, even where scientific researchers have not been able to' The scientific response to sigatoka negra, a disease which affects plantain, was to attempt chemical control. The expense of this control led to the conclusion that there was no economically viable response to sigatoka, and it was recommended that farmers eliminate all plantain as a method for controlling the disease. Some farmers persisted in their plantain production, and have weathered the sigatoka storm, although they recognize that it affects their production negatively. Agronomic researchers have now begun to focus more attention on small-farmer strategies for control, since they appear to represent a method of "integrated pest management," involving limited use of chemicals and relying more on cultural practices and the selection of resistant varieties (MacMurray 1988).

Final Thoughts

It is difficult to conclude a study such as this. No conclusion is adequate to summarize the complex and sometimes contradictory process of land settlement. Environmental protection seems to require at least a temporary set-back for poor farmers of the region; nevertheless, environmental degradation will impose its own, possibly harsher, consequences on the population as a whole. In the spirit of pulling together threads to alternately inspire or incense other researchers, a few conclusions will be sketched here.

Although it may seem defeatist, it should be recognized that no institutional arrangements have yet been found to control land settlement, short of posting guards around forest areas and clearly indicating a willingness to enforce the law. The economic, social, and political costs of such measures make it unlikely they will be widely used. As indicated in the first chapter, settlers already have entered much of the remaining "dense forest" areas of the isthmus. Future efforts must follow the lead set by the Canadian International Development Agency's forest management plan for Olancho and Colón, where special efforts are directed toward farmers and production in an effort to engage them and direct their activities in ecologically appropriate directions. Another promising effort is that of the National Park Foundation in Costa Rica, which is working to address farmer production needs as part of a land management strategy involving agricultural buffer zones and public participation in environmental analysis and planning (World Wildlife Fund 1988).

As a complement to the above conclusion, it seems clear that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of farmer management practices and motivations. Attempts to create alternative production arrangements, to divert farmer interest from land settlement, and to discourage the passage of land control from farmer to farmer, all have been quite unsuccessful. At the same time, farmers have in some cases developed their own, ecologically appropriate, management practices, although their primary motivation seems to be economic rather than ecological. A better understanding of farmer behaviour will offer a better opportunity to both predict policy failure and suggest promising policy or research orientations.

Finally, there is a need for redoubled efforts to discover and disseminate ecologically appropriate solutions to the problems of agricultural production in the humid tropics. Research should be directed so as to incorporate both ecological and economically viable strategies, to guarantee that new technology can be used by farmers independent of outside institutional or technical support. The importance of this effort can only be emphasized by the witnessing of affluent first world countries selling off natural resource reserves to raise income and lower government costs. If even the wealthiest countries cannot escape the economic pressure for environmental harvesting, poor countries would seem to hold even less promise.

There is still some hope for remaining forest areas in Central America, especially in view of the dramatic changes in public attitudes toward forests and conservation. Nevertheless, the ecological time bomb has continued to tick down to its last seconds; it will be a race against time to discover methods to defuse the bomb before the last second ticks away.


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